Allan Massie: New dawn is emerging for Scotland after longest night
THOSE of us who have clung to the belief that professional rugby can take off in Scotland as it did more than ten years ago in Ireland may at last be no longer whistling in the wind.
The last fortnight has given reason to believe that the long corner has been turned and that the sun has merged from behind the rain-heavy clouds. Ten days ago Glasgow thumped Cardiff Blues 31-3. On Saturday Edinburgh, with wit, courage and no little skill saw off the mighty Toulouse 19-14 to become the first Scottish club to reach the Heineken semi-final.
There was nothing freakish about either result. Admittedly, Cardiff, demolished by Leinster in their quarter-final, look like a team in free fall. Admittedly this Toulouse team may not be quite as good as some of their recent ones – even though they do sit at the top of the French League. Admittedly again they made so many mistakes at Murrayfield that at least one reporter called their performance inept and others simply said they were poor.
Actually, I don’t buy that. When a good team plays poorly, one should usually give some credit to the opposition. Toulouse certainly made mistakes, but they were hustled into them by the relentless commitment of the Edinburgh team. By midway through the second half, it seemed that only conceding a kickable penalty might cost Edinburgh the match. Yet things had looked different earlier. After Edinburgh got off to a perfect start when Timoci Matanavou failed to deal with Greig Laidlaw’s beautifully- placed Garryowen and Mike Blair, reacting alertly, displayed eel-like agility to score the try, Toulouse responded as one expected them to respond and looked very dangerous indeed. Several times they all but breached the Edinburgh defence and only desperate tackling kept them out. The lead was whittled away and, when Edinburgh went down to 13 men, disappeared. This was the testing moment: 14-7 down and Toulouse in the ascendant. The series of attacks which gave Laidlaw the opportunity to drop a goal represented the turning-point. Still behind at half-time, Edinburgh were nevertheless still in the game.
The commitment of the Edinburgh forwards in the second half was extraordinary. The performance of the internationalists in the front-row and the back-row was no surprise. We know how good they are. But the locks, Sean Cox and young Grant Gilchrist, were a revelation. Behind the scrum, Laidlaw directed operations like a little master, Chris Leck picked up where the injured Mike Blair left off. Tim Visser always looked dangerous. Tom Brown was wonderfully assured for one so inexperienced and Matt Scott, Nick de Luca and Lee Jones tackled magnificently. The tackle with which Jones sent the big Gillian Galan hurtling five yards backwards to be left shaken and wondering what had hit him will stay in the memory.
The threes had few opportunities in attack – it was a pity that Laidlaw’s diagonal ran on into touch instead of bouncing up and into Jones’s hands – but there was one delicious pass out of the tackle from De Luca which all but put the flying Visser clear.
It was a team performance, without a single failure, and Michael Bradley as coach deserves praise too: for the game-plan his team executed faithfully and skilfully; for having them play like Munster in the final stages; and for not flooding the field with replacements. He made only two voluntary ones, bringing on Stuart McInally and Roddy Grant for Netani Talei and Ross Rennie with ten minutes to go – and the changes were justified, for they brought fresh impetus just when it was needed.
No doubt the crowd stimulated Edinburgh to dominate the second half and finish so strongly. But this was possible only because the players themselves had stimulated the crowd and, in the end, it was Toulouse who were hanging on for dear life.
The best Scottish results in recent years have been the national side’s victories over South Africa and Australia. In retrospect we can see that these were one-offs, splendid and spirited displays that led nowhere. This one feels different, partly because it follows other remarkable performances and victories in the pool stages of the Cup. In a couple of these there was an element of good fortune. There was none on Saturday. That is what was so satisfying.
Even the great Thierry Dusautoir’s strange decision to kick the penalty when Ross Rennie was yellow-carded in the Edinburgh 22 and were Edinburgh reduced to 13 men, instead of opting for the scrum and going for the try, made no difference, because, if Toulouse had scored then, Matanavou would not have had the opportunity to score his brilliant try a couple of minutes later. That came from the only kick Edinburgh didn’t follow up hard. I could only conclude that Tim Visser was ahead of Mike Blair when he kicked, or thought he was, and feared to be judged offside.
For too long, Scottish clubs have been making up the numbers in the Heineken, and we have looked enviously on the achievements of first Munster and then Leinster. Now the Munsterman Michael Bradley has guided his charges to a semi-final in Dublin against Ulster and this may not be the end of the adventure.
A final at Twickenham beckons. Can we even dream of a victory in that graveyard of Scottish hopes?
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Friday 24 May 2013
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