Last season Leinster had perhaps the best defence in the league. So scoring three tries against them was commendable. For Alan Solomons, however, the worrying thing must be that Leinster didn’t seem to have to work all that hard to cross Edinburgh’s line while Edinburgh struggled at the other end. They dominated the second half and won it 12-7, Leinster’s try coming only at the end when Edinburgh seemed at least to have secured a losing bonus point.
Edinburgh made less of their territorial supremacy than they should have. This was partly because of some careless passing, perhaps because of an understandable nervousness. But it was also because they chose the wrong option far too often. In particular they repeatedly tried to score by bulldozing their way through the heavy traffic rather than seeking to find space. Of course this tactic sometimes succeeds, but not often against good teams.
Nobody expects Edinburgh – or indeed Glasgow or Scotland – to be as good as the All Blacks. That would be unreasonable. Nobody anywhere is at present anything like as good as the All Blacks. But you can still try to learn from them, and in particular from their ability to identify and exploit space. They do this by taking the ball at speed, looking to make the defender hesitate, and then passing before the tackle or off-loading out of it to a support runner coming on to the ball fast. They very rarely try to batter their way through the rugby equivalent of brick walls.
There are a lot of good young players in this Edinburgh squad, and some of them are learning fast. Hamish Watson, Magnus Bradbury, Blair Kinghorn and Nathan Fowles have all been impressive this season. They may need only a couple of good wins to give them the confidence to play with more enterprise and panache. But I wonder if there isn’t a bit too much matey-ness in the club. I notice that in interviews players regularly speak of Solomons as “Solly”. In their glory years Manchester United players didn’t speak of “Fergie”. He was “the Boss” or “Mr Ferguson” or, later, “Sir Alex”. There should be a certain distance between players and the manager-coach. If there isn’t, things can become too cosy.
Of course the question of how to find space in the game today is often perplexing. Referees don’t always help by failing to enforce the Laws. Stephen Jones of The Sunday Times is a writer with whom I often find myself in disagreement, but last week he wrote a very good piece about referees’ tendency to pay little or no attention to the offside line at rucks and mauls. The requirement for players not in the ruck to remain behind the hindmost foot of players engaged in the ruck is far too often disregarded. Consequently there is less time and space for the side recycling or winning the ball on the ground than the Law provides for, and attacks are stifled. A couple of penalties early in a match against the side creeping offside at the ruck might persuade it to obey the Law, and so make for a better game. It’s far more important for referees to penalise players for breaches of the Law in open play than at the set scrum where even minor, nigh invisible, offences are regularly and tediously punished. If the ball emerges from a set scrum, it really doesn’t greatly matter that a prop has slipped his binding.
Still, despite everything, gorgeous adventurous rugby is still possible and is still played, not only by the All Blacks and, one might add, by Argentina’s Pumas, the transformation of whose style has been one of the most pleasing features of recent years. Anyone lucky enough to watch last weekend’s match between Racing92 and Toulon saw wonderfully stylish and inventive play from the Paris club. Top 14 matches are often fairly turgid, but not this one. Given the number of foreigners on the field, games like this may not do much to revive the French national XV – though Racing’s full-back Brice Dulin will surely have impressed Guy Noves – but for the neutral spectator it was exhilarating stuff. Racing are in Glasgow’s European Cup pool, and, if both matches between the two clubs are fortunate enough to be blessed with fine weather and a dry ball, they should be a connoisseur’s delight with, one hopes, Dan Carter and Finn Russell orchestrating the music. Both teams obey two of rugby’s golden rules: move the ball and move the opposition around the field.