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THE SPIRIT OF 2003/04 RETURNS

Edinburgh: 31 (10) Newcastle Falcons: 13 (13)



I have been transported back in time of late.  The well known - and increasingly exasperating - travails of Scotrail are taking me back to those unreliable travelling days of the 80s.  Last night's match at BT Murrayfield saw the Gunners take five points playing old school, forward oriented rugby.  

And this European season increasingly reminds me of 2003/04, when the Embramen took on and beat the dominant force in European rugby at the time, Stade Toulousain, only to fall against the same opponents in the quarter finals.

Victory over injury ravaged Newcastle Falcons put the Gunners top of Pool 5, on 11 points, three ahead of the visitors and six to the good, for the moment, over third placed Montpellier.  The middle double header in the European pool so often decides whether a club has a fighting chance of qualification.  Should Edinburgh manage the double at Kingston Park next weekend, qualification will be in their hands.

The Gunners dominated this match.  64% possession and 71% territory; 400 metres made to 165; 124 rucks won to 66.  As well as the quantitative data, the qualitative evidence pointed the same way, notably their complete control in the scrummage.  The latter was no surprise, given the extraordinary injury problems that the Falcons had in the front row this week, coupled with the tournament rules.  If anything, the Embramen used the scrum too little, at times being guilty of taking ball quickly at No 8 rather than putting the power on and milking another penalty.  Not pretty, mind, but effective.

The visitors battled courageously throughout.  Through a combination of injury and rested players, they were very much an understrength squad.  Not least as the tighthead seat on the bench was left vacant through necessity.  They simply had no eligible players to fill it.  In these days of increased awareness of player safety, particularly in the front row, it just didn't seem right that the tournament rules left them no other option. One had a great deal of sympathy for Falcons' Director of Rugby Dean Richards.

But those who did make it did themselves a great deal of credit.  Their attitude was personified by Gary Graham, one of those hard, no nonsense characters in the back row that put me in mind of the great Derek Turnbull of Hawick.  And Tom Arscott put in a couple of wonder tackles to deny Edinburgh tries.  No-one took a backward step, even when the match was long gone after The King Blairhorn's bonus point try with 10 minutes left to run.  Knackered and punch drunk they may have been, but the flood of late tries that often characterises these affairs was absent.

And the Falcons played with panache in patches, not least through the impressive Adam Radwan's twinkling toes.  The winger scored a lovely try in the corner on the half hour that made one think this was not going to be a straightforward home victory.

Newcastle were first on the board, with a Connon penalty for offside on five minutes. But the match quickly settled in to a pattern of Edinburgh forward drives, pinning the Falcons in their own half.  'Hank' Pyrgos secured the Man of the Match award largely due to the quality of his box kicking.  The stats suggest he kicked 15 times.  It seemed much more than that.

The Gunners took the lead on 14 minutes with a Watson try.  The pack battered the enemy line repeatedly before Pyrgos whipped the ball out to the openside to cross. 'Piet' van der Walt's conversion put the home side 7-3 up.  But as time went on in the first period, one felt they really needed to score.

They were duly hit with a sucker punch as Radwan eluded 'Mr Darcy' Graham and The King to cross for the Falcons.  Connon hit an excellent conversion from wide out and they were 7-10 up.  Although van der Walt levelled with a penalty on 34 minutes, Connon edged the men in green ahead with his second penalty just before the break.

Turning into the second half, with the wind at their backs, the Gunners regained the lead quickly.  Once again, the pack repeatedly took the ball up close to the Newcastle line before Pyrgos found baby faced assassin, the perennially underrated Chris Dean, running a great line at pace.  The centre crosssed under the posts and van der Walt's conversion gave them a lead they were not to relinquish.

Continued Edinburgh pressure in the red zone was to count on 56 minutes. The Gunners had the Newcastle scrum under all kinds of pressure.  Referee Mitrea awarded a penalty try as the home eight were bulldozing their way towards an inevitable No 8 pick up for Bill Mata, only for Newcastle to collapse.  24-13 up and the match all but won.  The priority now was to look for the bonus point try, and avoid coughing up a losing bonus.

The fourth touchdown duly arrived, but it took its time in coming. Dave Cherry put in a Fordy-esque tackle on a speeding Radwan to deny the visitors a losing bonus.  Then the Gunners sparked a move from deep fielding a Falcons clearance.  Graham fed Mata on the counter, who took the ball up then offloaded beautifully to the supporting van der Walt.  The first five-eight made good ground then, spotting that there was no full back in position, kicked cleverly into space.  The King had plenty of time to shepherd the ball over the line and touch down for the bonus.

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LAST MEN STAND UP TO BE COUNTED

Edinburgh: 31 (17) Scarlets: 21 (14)

There has been much chat this week about how some matches, this evening's at BT Murrayfield included, devalue the Guinness PRO14.  Granted, both Edinburgh and Llanelli fielded callow sides shorn of internationals and the injured.  But this was a fantastically exciting encounter, ultimately won by the team that dug deep to keep their nerve and dog out the victory.

If last week in Italy saw key leaders posted missing, this week, everyone turned up - and stood up - back home.  From Ross Ford 'doing a Berghan' to cut down a winger wide out to snuff out a certain score, to the brutal dominance of Pierre Schoeman in tight and loose; from a towering performance by Ally Miller in the back row, to the unfussy effectiveness of CH2 and Jamie Hodgson in the boilerhouse; from the calm control exerted by 'Hank' Pyrgos, to the two try return of Tom 'Schooldays' Brown.  

And, naturally, another dominating shift from 'Big Big' Mata at the base of the scrum,

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PARMA LAMMED

Zebre: 34 (3) Edinburgh: 16 (13)

I wouldn't like to have been a fly on the wall in the Edinburgh dressing room after this latest catastrophe in Italy.  It's taken nearly a day for my own blood pressure to return to near normal levels; 'Jarvis' Cockers will still be in total frenzy mode.

In the proverbial game of two halves, the Gunners utterly dominated the first period and the half time score of 13-3 in their favour flattered Zebre.  After the break, though, the Italians scored early and visibly grew in confidence and ambition such that, at no-side, they were well worth their bonus point win.

At times, the Embra performance was reminiscent of their play under, well, Michael Bradley, Zebre's head coach. There was great deliberation about their tactics throughout, looking to take the home side on up front, using the box kick as their primary attacking weapon.  But it was telegraphed, predictable and formulaic.  The Italian blitz defence was outstanding all night and

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