THERE is a Gary Larson cartoon that has a man in an orchestra holding a huge pair of cymbals and the thought bubble coming from his head reads: “I must not mess up. I must not mess up.” The caption simply says: “Brian messes up”. Edinburgh had their solitary shot at glory in the European Challenge Cup final on Friday night at Twickenham Stoop in West London, and they messed it up right royally.
Coach Alan Solomons had adopted a low-key, softly softly approach in the build-up, which is fair enough, until his side adopted the same approach to the first half-hour of the game, after which they were trailing 10-3 to Gloucester.
It took Edinburgh 34 minutes to mount their first serious and sustained attack inside the Gloucester half, by which time this match should have been all over. Gloucester scored one try in the opening half-hour but it would have been three had Cornell du Preez not made two try-saving tap tackles on Gloucester’s quick men, and it could have been four had Gloucester executed better with their five-metre scrum against a short-handed Edinburgh side who had lock Anton Bresler sitting in the bin.
Edinburgh were bullied into submission, if you like, after the enigmatic Gloucester skipper Billy Twelvetrees enjoyed one of his more physically effective turns in a cherry and red shirt. His try in the first quarter of the match, courtesy of man of the match Jonny May, meant that Edinburgh were playing catch-up for most of the match and they are simply not designed for such an enterprise.
This was a failure not so much of tactics but of imagination and resolve. Edinburgh didn’t look remotely up for the fight although Solomons denied as much after the 19-13 defeat, insisting his side had been mentally prepared for the physical onslaught that Gloucester unleashed. But listening to his explanation of where Edinburgh had come up short, territory, possession, the aerial battle, the kicking contest, the contact area, momentum... there was precious little else left but the mental side of things.
“I thought that when Fordy got the try and we went 19-13 I thought we had a real, real chance to win it,” Solomons said post-match. “They looked to be struggling a little bit. They had a man off and we got deep into their 22.
“That was a major factor because they got a penalty and kicked to the line, won another penalty and kicked to the line and then held on to to the ball for the rest of the game. That was the big opportunity that we had, while agreeing that in the first half there was no question they were well on top with their 13-6 lead at half-time, but I think we had the opportunity there to snatch a win.”
They may have had the opportunity but had Edinburgh actually won this final it would have gone down as grand larceny. Edinburgh showed courage while under the cosh in that first half but they scored their one try only after Gloucester were reduced to 13 men and they failed to add to their total throughout the final 15 minutes when the opposition was still short-handed.
Gloucester’s director of rugby David Humphreys placed the praise for that rearguard action firmly on the shoulders of Twelvetrees and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, sat beside him at the post-match conference: “They made good decisions, they kept the ball and really didn’t give Edinburgh a chance.”
“I was obviously delighted to win the game,” said the Scot when asked about his emotions after besting his former club. “It is my first season at the club and we have won a good competition. I am very, very happy but I still have some good mates at Edinburgh. I am a humble person so it’s tough to see them at the end. But that’s why I came down to Gloucester, to win things.
“Credit to Edinburgh. Once we went down to 13, 14 men they started to open the ball up and tried to stretch up but we showed great character to get a turnover in our 22 and grab a little bit of field position and that’s what’s given us the game in the end.”
Will Edinburgh’s battered and bruised players be able to pick themselves up off the canvas and come out swinging again next week when they return to the day job with a vital league match against Dragons in Newport?
“Yeah I think they will be disappointed,” replied Solomons, “but the one thing we have prided ourselves on is resilience and we will just have to show something. We have been happy to do that because we have made progress in the Challenge Cup, we have had to play every week, but we have been happy about that because we wanted to make progress.
“Yes, it’s tough but the guys are determined to see out the season in good style.”
Edinburgh are one point behind the Scarlets who sit in that coveted sixth place, the last place that guarantees Champions Cup action next season. If Edinburgh remain in seventh place they will enter the playoff system where they will face...Gloucester.
On Friday’s performance, Edinburgh will have to hope that the Scarlets slip up somewhere between now and the finish line.