Richard Bath: Au revoir from the Aviva

‘Edinburgh left nothing out on the park. They came with an audacious game plan’

‘Edinburgh left nothing out on the park. They came with an audacious game plan’

IT WAS Australia’s David Campese who neatly encapsulated his rugby philosophy with the words: “There’s no point going to your grave not knowing what you can do.”

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There was no chance of that for Edinburgh yesterday. They left nothing out on the park. They arrived as no-hopers, written off by the bookies and facing a side which started this match as overwhelming favourites, and for much of this match they made them look ordinary. They disrupted the finely-tuned Ulster machine and quietened the legions of fans in the stands.

Edinburgh came with a plan to play an audacious off-loading brand of rugby against the white wall of Ulster’s mighty defence; to hurl themselves against the fire blanket which extinguished Munster’s fire at Thomond Park in the quarter-final.

At the Aviva in Dublin, before the Ulster hordes, Edinburgh entered uncharted territory in every way. In this epic, utterly compelling semi-final, they laid down a marker for Scottish rugby, and proved that innovation and ambition can compete with deep pockets off the pitch and with raw power on it. It was Edinburgh who largely dominated the tempo of this game, with the half-backs of Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw particularly effective at dictating the play.

It was those two shrewd footballers who called the shots when Edinburgh had the ball in hand, which was for most of the first 60 minutes. Time after time they flipped the ball inside and attacked around the fringes of the Ulster mighty forward pack.

In the quarter-final, Munster’s ball-carriers foundered on the rock of Ulster’s match-winning defence, but yesterday Edinburgh’s direct lines of running managed to circumvent Ulster’s defences on countless occasions.

Both Edinburgh forwards and backs were able to carry ball behind the Ulster lines, and Edinburgh’s line-break stats will have made satisfying reading for coach Michael Bradley this morning. Blair made a couple of particularly telling breaks in the first half, but a combination of Ulster’s obduracy – Stephen Ferris played half the match at openside and was again a force of nature – and Edinburgh’s inability to produce the final, telling pass that would allow them to cross the whitewash, stymied the visitors.

Yet Edinburgh’s effort was prodigious, and nowhere was it better encapsulated than midway through the second half when Edinburgh were under the cosh, with Ulster camped in their 22 and their big forwards lining up to drive over for the try that would help them pull clear of the Scots.

First it was Netani Talei whose enormous hit on monstrous second row Dan Touhy kept Edinburgh’s whitewash inviolate, and then it was No.8 Pedrie Wannenburg who picked up the ball and drove towards the line, only for Edinburgh’s tiny skipper Laidlaw rip the ball clear of the big No.8’s massive paws and clear his lines. It was a huge moment, one which brought the Scots in the ground to their feet, punching the skies.

Edinburgh’s resistance and desire was so heroic that this loss was doubly sore. But this match should not be remembered as one of “what ifs”. Sure, we could speculate on what would have happened had Ferris been sin-binned, as he clearly should have been, for slapping the ball out of Blair’s hands just before half-time. We could point to the fact that when Wannenburg scored his try off the back of a scrum, the ball had already been out.

Ultimately, though, this will be remembered as a match that Edinburgh could – and perhaps even should – have won. They created enough lines breaks and made enough fruitless journeys to the Ulster 22 to have registered the most famous victory in the history of Scottish club rugby. If Edinburgh’s strength has been their ability to score tries, yesterday that happy knack deserted them.

It would be easy to put that down to a high-risk strategy which saw them flinging the ball around as if they were at the Melrose Sevens, and that would be partly true. Yet Edinburgh were also at times the masters of their own destruction. The penalty given away just before half-time when Lee Jones was ahead of Laidlaw when he kicked ahead was one example; No.8 Talei’s crucial knock-ons when his side were camped in Ulster’s 22 another; Matt Scott’s knock-on when placed in the open yet another. For Edinburgh to overcome a side of Ulster’s quality, inspiration has to be complemented by perfection, and in the red zone Edinburgh just lacked the necessary killer touch.

Edinburgh also, sadly, lacked the raw power of the Ulster forwards. For most of the match they managed to keep the big Irishmen moving – except for at scrum time, when Edinburgh were mangled by the superior pack and lost 13 points as a direct result – but as the game moved into its decisive phases in the second half it was two penalties earned by concerted drives from the Ulster forwards which finally saw the favourites home.

Yet right to the end Edinburgh gave it a mighty lash. They may have lost, but yesterday proved there can be glory in that too.