The fun returned to Edinburgh Rugby on Saturday as a feast of entertaining rugby delivered 11 tries, with the home side edging a European 71-point classic by just the one.
At times, large parts of the crowd had to pinch themselves that this was indeed Edinburgh they were watching as the positive, attacking rugby flowed and a try-bonus point was secured inside only 24 minutes, with a fifth added for good measure before the break.
This, bluntly, is not what we have come to expect from Edinburgh after three years of Alan Solomons’ conservatism.
There had already been signs that interim head coach Duncan Hodge was looking to loosen the shackles and encourage a more adventurous style, with 16 tries scored in the previous two games. However, big wins over Treviso in the Guinness Pro12 and Timisoara, of Romania, in the Challenge Cup Pool 5 opener would leave any jury worth its salt requiring more compelling evidence, and the visit of Aviva Premiership side Harlequins was the perfect test.
The London side had won this competition three times, were the runners-up last season and headed north with most of their star names. The frequent bouts of aggro that punctuated the match and the way they stormed back in the second half almost to snatch the win proved that they meant business and added even more gloss to the excellence of Edinburgh’s ultimate victory.
After Charlie Walker had ominously opened the scoring early on, Hodge’s men hit back in a swashbuckling style that was a sight for sore, long-suffering eyes and ran in brilliant score after brilliant score. The first was finished by prop Allan Dell, who was a late replacement when Rory Sutherland dropped out, which led to Murray McCallum being scrambled to the national stadium from Goldenacre where he had already scored an early try for Heriot’s to take his place on the bench. He came on for the last few minutes to make it an incredible two wins in a day. Blair Kinghorn, Nasi Manu, Hamish Watson and Damien Hoyland then added to the home ledger.
An eventful finish to the half proved to be absolutely pivotal as the visitors won a penalty try and then pressed again, threatening to cut the lead further. But Hoyland pounced and finished from long range to make it a healthy 31-14 advantage at the break, with Jason Tovey and Walker sin-binned for a surreal scrap which broke out in the Scotland wing’s afterburners. Home co-captain Grant Gilchrist and visiting prop Joe Marler also saw yellow in the second half of an always tetchy affair.
Harlequins started strongly after the break with a try by Kyle Sinckler and a drumbeat of doubt tapped away constantly as another penalty try followed and then replacement flanker Mat Luamanu nudged them back in front.
But Hoyland had one more piece of magic up his sleeve and it was his teasing chip which opposite wing Tom Brown gathered from under the nose of his opposition namesake Mike to score on the line and seal a famous win.
“I think we’ve all got belief just now and we’ve been given the licence to have a crack, especially off counter attack,” said a delighted Hoyland after the game.
“One of the main things we’ve been working on for a while is our reaction when we counter-attack. We always had forwards there distributing the ball into the space we knew would be there from watching them during the week.”
Hoyland admitted the second half was “nerve-wracking” as Harlequins steadily reeled them in but insisted the belief never wavered. “It was just a case of saying ‘heads up, come on and keep back at them’,” said the Scotland cap. “We were under the posts a few times and it was just a case of the leaders stepping up. I think when they scored to go 33-31 up there was a real buzz from everyone that we weren’t going to let it finish like that.
“Maybe in the last couple of seasons we would have lost that game. The belief from this season, with Hodgey coming in, as a team it’s massive. We know we’ve got expectations to beat Harlequins and other teams in the Pro12.”
Hoyland reckons Harlequins may have been surprised by the way the Scots performed, though, to be fair to the English side, many seasoned Edinburgh watchers were too.
“I imagine they were,” said the 22-year-old. “They are a strong team in England and, looking back at some of our performances and where we were placed in recent years, yes they maybe underestimated us. I think we started the first 20 minutes really firing at them. Credit to them they came back in the second half and stepped it up. We slacked off a bit but managed to grind it out at the end.”
The youngster also played down the needle which threatened to boil over on several occasions and said: “They were probably quite frustrated after the first half. But I think it was just a high-intensity game and physical. We were right up for it, so were they. It’s a contact sport and that’s what happens.”
There were stars for Edinburgh all over the field. The superb Kinghorn, pictured left, was awarded man of the match but that accolade could as easily have gone to any number of others in black and red. Hamish Watson was colossal at openside, Hoyland electric on the wing, Manu finally showing the Super Rugby title-winning form we’ve been craving and Tovey producing yet another masterful display at stand-off. What a selection hornets’ nest that could prove when Scotland internationalist Duncan Weir returns from his broken jaw.