'Playing for the jersey' - How Edinburgh Rugby recorded impressive 21-18 Challenge Cup win over Saracens

The heavy rain may have cut down on the creativity shown by Edinburgh in recent weeks, but Mike Blair’s side put in an inspired performance all the same to get their Challenge Cup campaign off to an excellent start.

Edinburgh players celebrate on the final whistle at Saracens.
Edinburgh players celebrate on the final whistle at Saracens.

For an agonising two minutes and more at the end of this intriguing match it looked as if Saracens had snatched the victory away from them, an outcome that would have been harsh. But the referee chalked off the touchdown that the home side thought had seen them get their noses in front, and Edinburgh were able to start celebrating one of the most impressive results in their recent history .

Mike Blair’s team matched the three-time European champions for creativity and sheet grit, and the head coach was predictably and justifiably proud of the character shown by his team. “Not many teams come down here and win,” said Blair, whose record since taking over as head coach is now an impressive six wins and a draw from eight starts. “I said last week about entertaining - that was not one to entertain. That was one to grind through.

“When I spoke to the guys after the game I didn’t talk about the rugby side. There was some excellent game management. There was some other stuff that from a team point of view we need to get better at.

“But what I talked about was the heart and the attitude and the commitment to playing for the jersey. That’s something that we’re really trying to instil at the club - about that pride in the history of the jersey and what it means to play for Edinburgh.

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“That’s what got us through the game - that attitude. It wasn’t other things, it was putting your body on the line and giving everything for the jersey.”

An Emiliano Boffelli penalty gave Edinburgh an early lead but Saracens soon got into their stride, and captain Alex Goode gave them the lead with an unconverted try in the left corner.

Then the Edinburgh pack won a penalty at the next scrum, and Boffelli made it two out of two from bang on halfway. And it got better for the visitors when Charlie Savala spotted Ramiro Moyano free on the left and punted cleverly towards the corner. The Argentina international beat the last defender to the high ball and touched down, with Boffelli adding the two points to stretch his team’s lead to 5-13.

Saracens hit back immediately with a try by forward Andy Christie. Manu Vunipola converted, and that made the half-time score 12-13.

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Vunipola stroked over a simple penalty from in front of the posts to put Saracens ahead within a minute or two of the restart. But ten minutes on, another long-range penalty by Boffelli put the Scots a point in front.

Sarries then were back ahead thanks to a Manu Vunipola penalty, then minutes later Boffelli missed another long-range attempt to leave his side trailing. Then Saracens sub Eroni Mawi was sent to the sin bin, and Edinburgh wasted no time in taking advantage. A penalty went to touch, and Willem Nel finished off with an unconverted try from the lineout drive.

Sarries still had that chance at the death, but if they had won it would have been an undeserved victory.

Hamish Watson and James Lang were both injured in the first half but Blair said it is too early to know if they will be OK for the double-header against Glasgow. And the coach confirmed that Exeter’s Scotland international forward Sam Skinner is a target for next season, although he insisted that nothing had been determined yet.

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“Sam is a quality player and he’s certainly someone we’ve had a look at. Nothing is confirmed with that.

“We’re trying to build a squad next year that fits with how we want to play, and it’s also something with how our players take control of the squad and show leadership. The signings that we’re looking at will hopefully mimic some of that. It does take time to get the squad you want.”

Saracens had received a late pre-match boost when Maro Itoje, omitted from their original line-up, was cleared to play after Covid concerns. That meant Nick Isiekwe moved down to the bench, and former Glasgow player Tim Swinson dropped out of the squad altogether. A burst water main in the area had briefly threatened to force a postponement, but in the end the match went ahead in conditions made difficult by the worsening rain.

The London club’s director of rugby Mark McCall was not too disheartened by the result given those conditions as well as the changes he had made to his squad. “We had a mix of some senior players and some younger ones and all of them did really well today,” he said. “I’m pleased with some aspects but disappointed to lose the game.

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“We worked very hard for our couple of tries in the first half and they didn’t have to work all that hard for their points. They had three penalties from the halfway line from scrum penalties and a first-phase try that was well taken by them and badly defended by us.

“We worked really hard for our points and had the better chances, more opportunities close to their line than they had close to ours. Conditions dictated the game and I thought there were things to be encouraged by.”

Scorers:

Saracens: Tries: Goode, Christie. Con: Manu Vunipola. Pens: Manu Vunipola 2.

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Edinburgh: Tries: Moyano, Nel. Con: Boffelli. Pens: Boffelli 3.

Saracens: A Goode (captain); A Lewington (E Obatoyinbo 68), E Daly, A Lozowski (N Tompkins 58), M Malins; Manu Vunipola, I van Zyl (A Davies 58); Mako Vunipola (E Mawi 51), K Pifeleti (E Lewis 22), A Clarey (H Beaton 59), M Itoje, C Hunter-Hill (N Isiekwe 66), A Christie, B Earl, B Vunipola (J Wray 21).

Edinburgh: E Boffelli; J Blain, M Bennett, J Lang (C Hutchison 41), R Moyano; C Savala (J van der Walt 75), B Vellacott (H Pyrgos 53); P Schoeman (B Venter 59), S McInally (D Cherry 59), W Nel (L Atalifo 68), M Sykes (J Hodgson 58), G Gilchrist (captain), L Crosbie, H Watson (M Bradbury 41), N Haining.

Yellow card: Saracens: Mawi 66.

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Referee: T Trainini (France).

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