With a host of substitutes on the field Edinburgh’s set scrum creaked and then collapsed. The referee awarded a penalty and Mele stepped up and did the needful from 40 yards out on the right side. It was a cruel fate for Edinburgh who deserved a share of the spoils at the very least after dominating their illustrious opponents throughout the second half.
The Tigers bossed the first 40 but the home team grew in stature the longer this game went on, Edinburgh won all the big battles after the break and they took the lead thanks to a Tom Heathcote penalty just seven minutes from time. With a little more composure they might have kept hold of it.
Despite the pain of the late loss there was still plenty for Alan Solomons to smile about afterwards. “The really positive thing was that we got everyone on the field and everyone contributed,” said the Edinburgh coach. “We were missing 11 front line players and we gave 28 players a run and they all acquitted themselves well.”
Loosehead prop Rory Sutherland was turning out for Gala this time last year but he coped with the giant Samoan Logovi’i Mulipola admirably even though the big man opened the scoring, rumbling over from short range early in the match.
Edinburgh were aggressive in defence from one to 15, double-teaming the big Leicester runners and knocking them backwards. Former Leicester player Hamish Watson put in a great shift at openside flanker to win the man of the match award.
If the forwards fronted up against a much bigger pack of forwards the physical mismatch in the backs was if anything even more pronounced. Manu Tuilagi and Seremaia Bai pack as much beef as any centre combo in world rugby and still they didn’t have everything their own way.
Chris Dean started at 13, won a turnover with his first touch, tackled Tuilagi shortly after and then limped off with one ankle heavily strapped on 15 minutes. His replacement Joaquin Dominguez continued the good work and Edinburgh’s new Kiwi fullback Nick McLennan even had the brass neck to scrap with the giant centre.
England flanker Tom Croft dominated the sidelines with any number of takes but Ollie Atkins matched him for Edinburgh, although this steady supply of ball was interrupted after the introduction of James Hilterbrand at hooker. Twice in the opening 40 Leicester set up a driving maul from a lineout only to find themselves shunted backwards at a rate of knots.
Instead it was Edinburgh’s big men who showed them how to execute. Immediately before half-time, Greg Tonks made a sublime midfield break to give his side their best attacking opportunity of the half. A few phases later the same man’s pass to Dougie Fife was plucked out of the air by Leicester’s Fijian winger Vereniki Goneva. He wasn’t going to be stopped from scoring Leicester’s second by anyone except the referee, who had spotted an off-side offence. Edinburgh kicked to touch, Cornel du Preez took the catch at the back and Roddy Grant was the last man up with the ball.
Tonks had earlier missed a simple penalty but the fly-half made no mistake with the tricky conversion, and Edinburgh trailed 8-7 at the break after Freddie Burns added a penalty to Mulipola’s early score.
Solomons rang the changes at half time, six in all, and the driving rain that suddenly swept the Greenyards changed the entire complexion of the game. Still, Edinburgh picked up where they left off, on the front foot even if the best of the chances fell to Leicester. For a second time Goneva thought he had scored when the winger pounced on a clever grubber, but he was several yards offside and then only a tap tackle by du Preez on Croft prevented Leicester from extending their lead.
The second half was scoreless and looked set to stay that way. Burns missed a penalty from dead ahead of the posts and Heathcote fluffed two kicks, one from the half-way line. The Scotland fly-half eventually nosed his team ahead seven minutes from time, but it wasn’t enough.
Edinburgh: Try: Grant. Con: Tonks. Pen: Heathcote.
Leicester: Try: Mulipola. Pens: Burns, Mele.
Edinburgh: McLennan (Bezuidenhout 40, Tonks 53); Fife, Dean (Dominguez 25), Strauss (Beard 40), Visser (Thompson 40); Tonks (Heathcote 40), Kennedy (Hidalgo-Clyne 40); Sutherland, Ford (c) (Hilterbrand 55), Andress (Berghan 40), McKenzie (B Toolis 66), Atkins (A Toolis 66), Grant (Richie 55), Watson, Du Preez.
Leicester: Morris (Williams 61); Scully, Tuilagi, Bai, Goneva; Burns, B Youngs (Mele 53); Sio (Brugnara 40), Ghiraldini (T Youngs 40), Mulipola (Balmain 40), de Chaves, Parling (Wells 15), Croft (Crane 50), Salvi, Barbieri.
Referee: A McMenemy. Attendance: 3,381.