INJURY-HIT GUNNERS HOLD OUT
Edinburgh Rugby: 25 (22) Lyon: 17 (7)
Every coach nowadays aspires to have a squad of players who can do a job no matter which XV he selects. Tonight's match in the second tier European competition put the Gunners' depth to the test and they were not found wanting. It was mighty close at the end, though. Far closer than it should have been.
Against a visiting XV whose principal offensive gambit in the first half, in particular, seemed to be to put more Embramen off the park than there were sitting on the replacements bench, a Heath Robinson select in black and red prevailed for their second straight win in this competition. The capital side had to make five enforced replacements in the first half, having already made three late changes prior to kick off. The win left them sitting proudly top of the group having secured a precious away victory already.
It was a fairly classic game of two halves. The Gunners were 22-7 up at the break, having been comfortably the better side, playing with pace and width. The second half, Lyon started to threaten a bit and it was the turn of the Embra defence to deliver the goods. Stand-off Tom Heathcote won the Man of the Match award, and the more I see of his play, the more I like him. That is always a sign of impending doom for any young playmaker. Just ask Rory Hutton and Harry Leonard, to take two examples. But he kicked his goals, attacked the line, got his backs moving and made his tackles. You can't ask for more from your ten. The only disappointment was that Phil Burleigh, in the second five-eighth slot tonight, retired injured so early as it was a combination that worked well and, indeed, created the Edinburgh try. Meanwhile, SHC had a fine match at half back, his sniping at the fringes keeping the defence honest, while his service was quick and sharp.
I thought Tomas Leonardi had a dominating match at the base of the scrum. The returning Dave 'Dents' Denton also breenged to good effect, albeit I note that he has still not learned to offload during his absence injured. Ben Toolis, another injury replacement, took skipper Gilchrist's place and had a good shift in the boilerhouse. But hats off to James Hiterbrand (who looks spookily like former Gunner 'Ned' Kelly, appropriately enough), who came on to replace Roddy at blindside early on and had an absolute stormer. There's no point pretending that the guy can throw in. He couldn't hit a barn with a banjo, let alone a barn door, and probably never will. But he was massive in the wide open spaces of the back row and exemplified the Gunners' determination tonight. When the going got tough, the tough did indeed get going and it was their refusal to take a backward step that secured this win.
It's always interesting to do a Google search on officials who, like tonight's Mr Carley, have emerged from obscurity. And who, one hopes, will return there pronto. Richard Cockerill is clearly not a big fan of a whistler who was the first to graduate from the RFU's Referee Academy last year. However justified that view may or may not be, one felt that he was a bit out of his depth tonight and failed to get a grip of the match. Unbeknown to the young Englishman, it seems, there was a lot going on off the ball - five injury replacements for one side in one half will surely have the Citing Commissioner taking a close look at the match video - while the whistler was at one stage conned by the most theatrical dive one has seen in a long time to award a lineout penalty to Lyon. The performance by the Lyonnaise jumper will surely have excited gasps of admiration from even the most adept divers in international soccer. This may be the second level of European competition, but it surely still deserves to be run by more experienced whistlers.
The Embramen got off to a dream start on the wonderful Murrayfield surface. Heathcote scored the first of his six penalties inside the first minute. Three minutes later, the home side built a series of dynamic phases around the enemy ten metre line. The ball was then moved quickly across field, where Burleigh straightened the line beautifully, committed the full back even more beautifully and put Jack Cuthbert away. The fabulous baker boy surged over for the try, converted by Heathcote for a 10-0 lead inside five minutes. When Heathcote knocked over another penalty on ten minutes, one wondered whether the stuffing might already have been knocked out of the visitors. They didn't seem particularly up for it, that's for sure.
There followed a very odd ten minutes where Edinburgh infringed, Lyon knocked a kickable penalty to the corner and then the home side foiled the driving maul. They did the same thing four times before eventually forcing impressive number 8 Matatigo over for the try on 17 minutes. I suppose it was a declaration of intent and all that, but most folk would have taken the three points first up at such an early stage in the match.
As Embramen fell in their numbers, Heathcote continued to notch the penalties. He booted three of them in 12 minutes as the Gunners had the French club under severe pressure and forced the infringements. Lyon seemed to be running through their repertoire of inventive ways to give penalties away. The half came to a close with the Gunners' defence being put under pressure in their own 22 for a change, but holding out well for a comfortable margin at the break. They had been the better side, but one wondered whether tired legs might be a factor in the final quarter as the raft of early replacements took its toll.
Porical narrowed the lead slightly with a penalty on 42 minutes. The offence was given away after the Gunners had failed to exit their own 22 effectively. But they nearly stretched the lead shortly afterwards as SHC's cute grubber behind the defence just refused to sit up for Visser in wide open prairie in the enemy 22. Yet while the Gunners put in some decent phases either side of halfway in the final half hour of the match, they didn't threaten the tryline again. Instead, they played far too much of the match behind their own ten metre line when they should instead have kept play in the enemy half and run down the clock. This was in large measure down to poor tactical kicking and an equally poor kick chase. It's all very well being confident in your defence - and the result shows that the Embramen were right to be so - but letting the opposition have so much ball in your half always risks them racking up penalties, at least.
In fact, Lyon did better than that, another driving maul seeing Tison dive over for a try under the posts on the hour. The conversion left the score 22-17 Embra and far too close for comfort with fatigue setting in.
Much of the final quarter saw Lyon bashing away at the home defence - usually with little imagination - and the home defence soaking up the pressure. More than once, the Embramen held a driving maul up to secure a defensive scrummage. More than once, too, they secured the crucial turnover in their 22. Eventually, they managed to knock a penalty to half way on 77 minutes. They seemed content to put in a few phases to let the clock run down, but the desperate visitors infringed twice, the latter giving Heathcote a simple chance on no-side. Tonight's Man of the Match stroked the ball over to secure the win and deny Lyon the losing bonus.