Slow start hurts Edinburgh in Montpellier as they fall just short

Darcy Graham reflects on what might have been for Edinburgh who produced an impressive second-half display but still came up short against hosts Montpellier. Picture: SNS/SRU
Darcy Graham reflects on what might have been for Edinburgh who produced an impressive second-half display but still came up short against hosts Montpellier. Picture: SNS/SRU
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Almost everyone wrote Edinburgh off before Saturday’s match against the might of Montpellier but Richard Cockerill’s team came agonisingly close to a famous win in the Altrad Stadium and might have come away with the points had they not started so poorly.

If you only looked at the match stats, Edinburgh made less than half as many tackles as the French side, you’d pick the underdogs as winners but they failed to capitalise on all that possession and will rue a sloppy opening half.

Cockerill insisted after that match that his side should have won the game and Montpellier’s coach, former Scotland boss Vern Cotter could only agree. The headline in one French paper read: “Montpellier impose themselves in pain” and it must have been agony for Cotter and his Scottish assistants coaches Richie Gray and Nathan Hines to watch.

“I am proud of the performance but we can play better,” said Cockerill, already looking ahead to the visit of Toulon next Saturday. “We are going to work hard this week because we are going to turn these opportunities into wins.”

The visitors made a string of unforced errors in a scrappy first 30, which combined with some clinical finishing from Montpellier to send the home side into a 21-7 lead at the break.

The French club opened the scoring with no more than five minutes on the clock. Ruan Pienaar, from the unaccustomed position of stand-off, stepped inside Henry Pyrgos’s attempted tackle before slipping the ball to full-back Henry Immelman who had an easy run to the line.

Edinburgh eased their way back into contention with a try themselves, a belter from skipper Stuart McInally, below, following great build-up work from the big men, including soft offloads from Bill Mata and Grant Gilchrist.

The score stayed at seven points apiece until the half-hour mark when the home team scored two quickfire tries, one from each winger, to take a lead that they never relinquished.

The first fell to Benjamin Fall but only after the French international stepped out of two poor tackles from the Edinburgh defence. The second saw Montpellier break from deep via the big lock Jansie van Rensburg who kept the defence guessing by holding onto the ball with two hands. Eventually, Pienaar launched a speculative crossfield kick which left-winger Gabriel N’gandebe latched on to.

Edinburgh were facing a mountain at 21-7 down just before the break but they rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Simon Hickey kicked a penalty late in the first half to narrow the deficit by three and Edinburgh comprehensively dominated the second 40, banging away at the Montpellier defence but conjuring up just one more try.

It came when Montellier were reduced to 14 men, with the iron-hard Springbok hooker Bismark du Plessis sat in the sin bin, and it only arrived after Mata did his excellent Leone Nakarawa impersonation, dragging the defence on to him before slipping the ball to Dougie Fife.

That score arrived just before the hour mark. Edinburgh huffed and puffed in the final quarter and they had their chances but were just unable to convert any of them. The best opportunity arose after Jaco van der Walt made a sublime stand-off break in the middle of the field and fed the ball to Fife on the left wing. He was stopped just shy of the Montpellier line and Pyrgos fired a bullet to Magnus Bradbury, who worked his socks off, only for Simon Bergan to get penalised for obstructing the last defender.

Edinburgh can take a host of positives from the match but their inability to turn possession into points is fast becoming an issue, not least for attack coach Duncan Hodge.

Toulon lost to Newcastle Falcons in the south of France and it will be instructive to see whether the three-time winners have effectively folded already, or whether they are stung into action by the shock.