Familiar failings wreck Edinburgh’s dream of reaching Pro14 final
And so a Scottish rugby “season”, in a “domestic” sense at least, ended in a fittingly sombre and anticlimactic manner at an eerie BT Murrayfield on Saturday night.
An Edinburgh side who had seemed destined to make history and reach a first ever Guinness Pro14 final right up until the last ten minutes choked as they allowed Ulster to snatch away their dream with the last kick of the game despite trailing by 12 points at a stage earlier in the second half.
For the dejected home side it is not yet the end of a campaign which began more than a year ago as they have a European Challenge Cup quarter-final against Bordeaux-Begles, scheduled to take place in France where new coronavirus cases are surging, on 19 September and a chance to end a losing record in knockout games under Richard Cockerill which now reads zip from five. European trophies and league titles remain to be handed out but the Covid-19 pandemic has left everyone losers this year. Now “winter is coming” as the slogan goes for one of the screen sagas everybody had been seeking streamed solace in for the past bleak months and the next chapters are unpredictable.
Rugby chiefs are taking a Panglossian stance. They have to. What is the alternative? Pilot events with limited fans, of which Murrayfield was a pioneer a week past Friday, have been held and there is optimistic talk of getting back to tens of thousands when international rugby is due to resume in a flurry of Tests which will see the culmination of a truncated Six Nations and makeshift eight-team Nations Cup. The next Pro14 season, reduced to 12 for now due to the unavailability of the South African sides Cheetahs and Kings, is set to begin at the start of next month.
After the enforced six-month break Edinburgh and, to a lesser extent Glasgow, at least got some hit-outs in what is now more like a pre-season than a climax to one that had long since been marked with a glaring asterisk due to tragic and unforeseen external circumstances. Fresh from agreeing a two-year contract extension to 2023, Cockerill will now embark on pushing his charges up another level again after familiar failings re-emerged to wreck what had seemed like another ticked box on an upward journey.
The clearly disappointed Englishman was calm and fair in his analysis of what went wrong as his team “got what they deserved”.
He lamented the fact that Test-level players had been unable to handle the big moments, perhaps kindly neglecting the fact that is too often also the case with the Scotland national team.
A lot went right for Edinburgh on the night. They made an early breakthrough with skipper Stuart McInally’s try, led at half-time, then exploded out of the traps after the restart to forge a seemingly decisive 19-7 lead as Darcy Graham and Chris Dean went over.
But the home side at no point seemed comfortable against a streetwise but not overly impressive Ulster. The problem for Edinburgh seemed to be, as Cockerill alluded to, the failure of the players to recognise that a semi-final, even one played in an empty shell of a stadium, is a different beast from a bog-standard mid-season league game.
If it had been the latter Ulster might well have unconsciously chucked it as a lost cause but a team with a number of battle-hardened Ireland Test stars refused to let this one slip and mauled their way back into things with tries from Rob Herring and John Andrew.
To add salt to Edinburgh wounds Ulster boss Dan McFarland, the former Glasgow and Scotland forwards coach, revealed the maul moves had been masterminded by capital legend Roddy Grant, who is now an assistant for the Belfast-based northern province, who will head south to face the all-conquering and big odds-on favourites Leinster in the Dublin final on Saturday.
Then sub stand-off Ian Madigan nailed the 40-metre last-kick penalty after Mike Willemse’s desperate deliberate knock-on was, in Cockerill’s view, correctly punished by Irish referee Frank Murphy.
“We’ll have a few days off and then come back in the middle of next week,” said Cockerill after the game.
“We just don’t need to be forcing a game that doesn’t need to be chased. Chris Dean spoons the ball down the field and they end up scoring from the next play.
“We have to make good decisions there – let’s have a scrum because we were on top there. That’s just an example and there was lots of examples of poor decision making. It doesn’t matter if it’s a semi-final or Zebre at home.”
So the champagne stayed on ice and the prospect of a quality glass of claret in a fortnight did little to soothe the Edinburgh coach’s frustration.
“That’s no consolation because we should be taking the opportunity here,” he said of the upcoming Bordeaux match, before accepting the responsibility for the shattering defeat was as much if not more down to him than his misfiring players.
“I’m not going to make any excuses for myself because it’s my fault, it starts with me, and the players are going to be held accountable next week.
“We’re not going to change 45 players, they’ll only change the coach. We just have to dust ourselves off – we’ve got a couple of weeks prep to go to Bordeaux so we just need to get better with the players we’ve got.”
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