Edinburgh experienced both the ying and the yang of professional rugby in the space of six days. After a famous win over Toulon in the Heineken Champions Cup last weekend, Richard Cockerill’s side fell tamely to Zebre in the day job.
After building a 13-0 lead late in the first 40 of last night’s Pro14 fixture, Edinburgh looked in complete control but the speed with which his side capitulated in the second half will worry Cockerill. The match ended in a rout, with Zebre winning the second half by 31-3 and grabbing the bonus-point try with the clock in the red numbers.
Edinburgh played a starring role in their own downfall and several players won’t look forward to Monday’s video session. The visitors failed to make much hay when the sun shone in the first half and Edinburgh enjoyed 75 per cent of the ball. They managed just one try and 13 points to show for all their effort.
Edinburgh’s reluctance to drive the stake through Zebre’s heart when they had the whip hand came back to bite them. The Italians were a different side in the second half – amazing what a cup of Bovril can do – dominating possession almost as much as Edinburgh did in the first. What’s more, Zebre made better use of their possession than Edinburgh, scoring four tries – all of which stemmed from Edinburgh errors.
If there was a turning point it came when Simon Hickey, normally so reliable with the boot, missed a sitter on 35 minutes only to see Carlo Canno kick Zebre’s opening three points just three minutes later. That penalty seemed to breathe belief back into the Italians, who scored 17 points in the third quarter.
In a game that was strictly for purists (and Zebre supporters) both defences dominated the first half. The Italians appeared to target Ross Ford in particular because the veteran hooker was caught in possession well behind the gain line on at least three occasions. Edinburgh’s attack struggled to find a way around the Zebre blitz and the lack of midfield creativity continues to hinder this team.
Edinburgh’s front row looked good on paper and looked even better on the pitch, winning two penalties at the set scrum in the first half alone. Bill Mata and Luke Hamilton did much of the heavy lifting and their back row amigo Luke Crosbie proved a reliable source of possession at the sidelines.
It wasn’t really a night for sparkling back play but Darcy Graham looked lively, chasing Henry Pyrgos’ bombs; a fruitful exercise since the Italians failed to deal with them from first to last… not that Edinburgh were able to capitalise.
Graham also scored Edinburgh’s only try after Chris Dean offloaded beautifully to send his winger over the line. Edinburgh’s other first-half points all came from the boot of stand-off Hickey, who added the conversion and a couple of penalties.
The Italians are a serious proposition at home. They hung on to Edinburgh’s coat tails in that one-sided first half when they should have been dead and buried and whatever was said at half-time should be canned and sold for millions. The home side went into the sheds trailing by ten but they had the lead just 15 minutes later.
The Italians were a different side after the break, scoring two converted tries and a penalty in the third quarter. The first score went to lock David Sisi when it looked like Callum Hunter-Hill had the Italian in his grasp. Sisi wriggled free and showed everyone a clean pair of heels to the try line.
Canna and Hickey swapped penalties before the Italian stand-off put in a speculative cross-field kick pass that Dougie Fife allowed to bounce and it fell into the grateful arms of Gabriele de Guilio who ran in unopposed. Having trailed 0-13, Zebre were 20-16 ahead and playing with real belief.
The match moved into the final ten minutes and Edinburgh were beginning to show some urgency when Hickey’s pass to Mata was picked off by Canna who raced away for the Italians’ third touchdown. The stand-off converted his own try but there was still time for skipper Tomasso Castello to score the fourth, bonus-point try at the death with Canna, again, doing the needful off the tee.