Bonus blow but Edinburgh moving in right direction

Tom Brown leaves James Hook trailing as he  crosses for Edinburgh's first try. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Tom Brown leaves James Hook trailing as he crosses for Edinburgh's first try. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IT IS a rare sight in Scottish pro rugby: coaches struggling to lift players and urge them to celebrate when they have just beaten a French side, convincingly.

Edinburgh 27-16 Perpignan

But, in Edinburgh’s post-match huddle on Saturday night, heads were down. They had finished a massively physical, bone-jarring game of Heineken Cup rugby with an 11-point win, Perpignan well beaten, but the bodies were slumped as much emotionally as physically because they had missed out on a bonus point. The Scottish side had left a fourth try out there.

So they will conclude Pool 6 on Sunday in Limerick needing to beat Munster, potentially with a bonus point, to have a chance of prolonging the season’s European journey beyond the Six Nations. With Munster beating Gloucester on Saturday, had Edinburgh claimed a bonus, a four-try victory in Ireland could have taken them to the top of the pool and qualification for a home draw in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. That will strike some as incredibly optimistic, but things are changing at Edinburgh. They are now eyeing the last eight of the Amlin Challenge Cup as a decent alternative in their first season under new management.

Here is the qualification picture put as clearly as possible. Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, Munster, Ulster and Leicester have qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, and results in the final weekend will determine who has home ties.

Leinster need only a point against Ospreys at home next weekend to join them and Saracens and Northampton are vying for one of the two best runners-up spots. The next best three runners-up will drop into the last eight of the Amlin. If the Warriors beat Toulon at home on Saturday and Cardiff lose at home to Exeter, Gregor Townsend’s side would have one foot in the Amlin quarters, but Edinburgh could still knock them out by winning in Ireland. The rest of the mathematics we will leave till later in the week.

Suffice to say, Edinburgh are still in the mix with one game to go and Solomons was eager at full-time on Saturday to remind his charges of that.

“They are disappointed that they didn’t get the bonus point,” he said. “We did have opportunities. We had a lineout opportunity and scrum opportunity close to the line, and another in phase play when we knocked the ball on five metres out, so, yes, there is disappointment, but I don’t think that should mask what has been a fantastic performance. That was exactly the point I made to them in the huddle.

“It is positive that we now go there [to Ireland] with something to play for, but we always treat every game as a challenge. This will be an almighty challenge. They [Munster] are a very good team, but I think the guys are looking forward to it. There is no trepidation about this team.”

He rightly dismissed a suggestion that, having reached the last eight, Munster may subconsciously slacken off, reminding the questioner that their campaign started with defeat at Murrayfield. But Munster also need a win to claim a home quarter-final and, having suffered four knock-out defeats in the last five years – in Dublin, Biarritz, Clermont and to Ulster at Thomond – frustration is bubbling in Munster.

And the rigidity forming in Edinburgh’s defensive wall will banish any complacency. It may be a tight, controlled style of play, easy to pigeon-hole as ‘South African’, stemming as it does from the brains of Solomons and Omar Mouneimne, alongside our own Stevie Scott, and led by a clutch of players from the Republic.

Behind a tight, powerful and hard-working front five – Willem Nel’s tackling continues to set new tighthead standards – the back row of Cornell du Preez, Roddy Grant and David Denton is finding a terrific balance in work at the breakdown, tackling and loose play. Du Preez is way out in front as the Heineken’s top tackler this season with 71 in five games, but Grant and lock Grant Gilchrist are also in the top five with 52 each, albeit Grant has played two hours less, and Edinburgh lead the club chart with 614.

David Denton is in the top ten of ball-carriers in the tournament, with 48 carries in just 240 minutes (Glasgow scrum-half Niko Matawalu is on 57, albeit with an extra game), and Gilchrist is the Heineken’s top lineout taker with 22. Hooker Ross Ford deserves credit for consistency with his throws.

These are the rugby pillars upon which a new Edinburgh is emerging. Less flair, more force; new cohesion, accuracy and physicality. Not a complete game by any means, but a foundation.

The best examples came in several torrid periods where Perpignan battered at them through countless phases. The French front five were matched in the set-piece and feisty Tongan prop Alisona Taumalolo, 20-stone locks Luke Charteris and Sebastien Vahaamahina, big back rows Dan Leo, Jean-Pierre Perez and No 8 Karl Chateau, not to mention sizeable South African wing Wandile Mjekevu, were regularly knocked back in the tackle.

Tommy Allan, the former Scotland under-20 fly-half, making his first appearance at Murrayfield since turning down Scotland for a Test career with Italy, was adept with quick hands and skilful kicks, aided by James Hook, and asked questions of the hosts.

Perpignan provoked errors and kept ball well, but were met with unyielding resistence and, when once they got over, in the 29th minute, the ball was held up, and that further lifted Edinburgh and crushed Perpignan. Still, the hosts needed more to win, and that came with three tries that took the French, currently struggling domestically, over the edge.

Grant’s deft work at a ruck on the French 22 released Tom Brown, and the winger’s electric burst into a gap took him clear. With Greig Tonks looking more confident at fly-half with each game, Du Preez finished a flowing move across the 22 full of intent by steamrollering the last defender – minutes after Perpignan skipper Guilhem Guirado had been yellow-carded for illegally disrupting a maul. Then wing Dougie Fife touched down after newcomer Carl Bezuidenhout – on at half-time for an injured Jack Cuthbert – had kicked through and Du Preez worried Mjekevu into losing the ball at the line.

There is never a bad time to score, but at 15, 47 and 57 minutes, the tries hit the French early in each half and Greig Laidlaw’s two penalties and three conversions cast them adrift. A late try for replacement Maxime Delonca only added to home disappointment over that missing bonus point.