You would have got decent odds against it before this tournament kicked off but at the halfway stage of the Champions Cup group stage Edinburgh are sitting pretty, kings of the castle, atop Pool 5 with 11 points from their three games to date. They not only got the bonus-point victory over Newcastle’s depleted Falcons on Friday but they restricted their nearest rivals to nul points, which was a handy night’s work as full-back Blair Kinghorn suggested.
“I think to get five points on a night like this was a brilliant result for us,” said the man who popped up with the bonus-point try inside the final ten minutes as Edinburgh secured a 31-13 victory.
“[They were] horrible conditions out there really. The pack really fronted up and gave us a great platform to attack from. It probably wasn’t the best game to watch but we got five points so we are not really bothered by that.”
A good outing for Edinburgh was somewhat overshadowed by the tighthead crisis that struck the Falcons with, err, none available to Dean Richards on the night. The Falcons had lost three props in quick succession to injury ahead of the game but after the squad had to be finalised. The Falcons coach asked European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) for dispensation to add a late “medical joker” in Jack Payne, an Aussie-born, Welsh-qualified, 6ft 5in, flanker-turned-tighthead.
Richards was arguing his case with EPCR officials right up until an hour before kick-off, with the support of an old Tigers’ team-mate in Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, but without success.
When interviewed on live television immediately after the game it was put to Richards that the Falcons could face further sanctions because they fielded two, instead of the regulation three, front-row forwards on the bench.
“I couldn’t give a toss,” was his exact response, on BT Sport, although the big bear of a man toned down the invective by the time he made it to the post-match presser.
“You lose three tighthead props in 24-hours,” he continued. “You ask for dispensation to bring in another one but you’re not allowed that, so you have to play a loosehead on the tight.
“It is not like playing a left wing on the right wing, or an inside centre at outside centre. There is a safety issue there and they weren’t prepared to address it, so I was particularly disappointed with that.
“Full credit to the boys, they stuck at it...but their opportunity was thwarted by bureaucracy, which is ridiculous.”
No one was willing to mention the elephant in the room. In a precious guise with Harlequins, Richards himself was involved in rugby’s infamous “bloodgate” incident. On his watch a player had his mouth deliberately cut by a medic just to get a drop goal specialist, already subbed, back on to the field.
The rules are there for a reason and you can imagine a scenario where the flexibility that Richards demanded of EPCR was abused to draft in a stronger player who had, perhaps, recovered from injury quicker than expected. Perhaps EPCR should have allowed Newcastle to register a tighthead specialist and then play with 14 men?
Richards expects to have two tightheads back in harness for the return fixture and the Falcons did enough at Murrayfield to suggest that Edinburgh will have to improve on Friday’s form if they are to collect another five points next Sunday. Cockerill’s side failed to hold on to the slippy ball in the contact zone. The midfield still looks like a work in progress, although Matt Scott may be back in the mix, and why does the powerhouse carrier Duhan van der Merwe, perfect for Friday’s conditions, stay on his wing rather than go looking for work?
At least Edinburgh are going well in Europe because their form in the Guinness Pro14 is sketchy. Cockerill’s side occupy fifth place in Conference B, a full seven points off Ulster in third, the final play-off place.
As Cockerill has already admitted, once you are in the Champions Cup it becomes much more difficult to qualify for the main event. The coach has always insisted that he concentrates on the “day job” of picking up league points but this season Edinburgh look a little like the club of old who shone brightest in knockout competitions while struggling with the weekly grind of league rugby.
Kinghorn isn’t buying it. “I don’t think so,” he said. “We’ve had a really tough run in the league, had a lot of boys injured and a lot of boys away on international duty. I think the boys who have been here have done really well up against some pretty much full-strength teams. We’ve not lost at home, and although we’re struggling with our away form we’re not too worried about it just yet.”
There were several reasons for Edinburgh to be optimistic after Friday. Henry Pyrgos not only kicked well on a miserable night but he twice picked out scoring passes from a host of options. Replacement hooker David Cherry made a jaw-dropping cover tackle on a flying Falcons winger Adam Radwan who had already danced past Darcy Graham. And Viliame Mata continues to spread festive cheer like an outsized elf.
The Fijian breakaway carried the ball 27 times for 106 metres, almost double the next nearest player on both counts, but it was in the build up to Kinghorn’s 72nd-minute bonus point try that Mata showed his true worth. The Fijian got the ball around the halfway line and while fending a defender with his left hand he popped the ball out the back of his right straight to Jaco van der Walt on the wrap around. The fly-half hacked ahead and Kinghorn was first to the ball as it bobbled over the Falcons try line.
“I was panicking a little bit because it wasn’t popping up,” said the full-back, “but Mish [Hamish Watson] was talking to me, saying I’ve got time, so I was keeping calm. Bill [Mata] has been in great form for us and can pull something out of nothing, as you saw for that try.”
Edinburgh have a decent shout at making the quarter-finals but only, you fancy, if their talismanic Fijian stays on the field.