STAND UP FOR THE ULSTERMEN
Edinburgh Rugby: 17 (14) Ulster: 20 (10)
Spending this morning through in Glasgow on business, I found a city bravely coming to terms with an enormous injustice done to its favourite son and, by extension, to the city itself. There were no histrionics, no complaints. Just a city quietly united in its cheery determination to take the mick out of Dan Biggar in merciless fashion when the fragile playmaker attends the Glasgow v Ospreys fixture at Scotstoun this weekend. Assuming the boy doesn't stub his toe, break a fingernail or suffer some other life-threatening injury en route, of course. #Finnocent @
That heartwarming experience deadened the pain somewhat after the high (geddit?) drama at Murrayfield last Sunday and the high farce that followed in the Six Nations judicial process. Even the great Martyn Williams thought it was OTT.
Anyway, this evening's rather lower key goings-on in the national stadium gave the Embramen the chance to continue their recent promising run on their quest to secure a top six finish in the Pro 12 and top tier European competition next season. In the past, meeting Ulster during the international period has tended to mean total disaster mixed with utter humiliation for the capital club. Tonight, by contrast, the Gunners could field a strong side and there was some hope among the Embra Ultras that the visiting Ulstermen would remain in a sedentary position.
Progress of a sort was made, insofar as it was a disaster for the home side, but not a humiliation. Embarrassing, mind. They played the the final quarter against an Ulster side down to 14 and then 13 men and yet could not come away with the win. Although the losing bonus point was some consolation, this was very much a story of three points lost rather than a point gained. The Gunners threw this one away through a combination of tactical errors and poor execution. Accurate tactical kicking can be a potent attacking threat; wayward hoofing simply gives the ball to the opposition in space. There was little of the former and far too much of the latter.
Meanwhile, certain key individuals had off-nights. Ulster gave away so many penalties over the piece that I ran out of ink recording them. And yet Tom Heathcote managed to miss five - that's FIVE - penalty shots, as well as a difficult conversion. None of them was simple, but most of them were eminently kickable. That degree of inaccuracy is simply not acceptable. Jack Cuthbert had an erratic game at full back, his errors leading to half of Ulster's total haul. I'm a huge fan of the boy, but he had a nightmare. Finally, the lineout fell apart completely in the final quarter, wasting excellent attacking opportunities against an understrength pack with the Embra maul motoring forward at will. At present, Edinburgh sit on 33 points, in seventh place in the table, level with Connacht but having played a game more than the West coasters and the Scarlets. Finishing in the top six is going to be a very close contest and it is vital that every possible point is secured. The Embramen simply cannot afford to chuck them away as they did tonight.
While this was a bad loss for Edinburgh, it was a good win for Ulster. Their discipline was very poor indeed, but they defended soundly in the final quarter and scored two good tries. It was their imports Ruan Pienaar and Nick Williams that made the difference for them. The South African scrummie kicked his goals and was alert to the opportunity for his try, while the Kiwi's strong ball carrying occupied the defence and his offload put Cave over for his touchdown.
In a week when discipline has made the headlines, one feels that Ulster centre McCloskie is facing a lengthy ban following his red card for a dangerous clear-out on Watson. These things always look worse on the replay, but this one looked awful in real time too. Not only did he upend Watson, but he seemed to help the openside on his way to the ground and it was fortunate that his neck was not injured. One wonders what possessed him to do it. If Russell can be banned for two weeks for a combination of poor positioning and stupidity in a situation where the other player arguably made the offence inevitable, the authorities have little choice but to take robust action in this case. Legendary scribbler Alasdair Reid wrote interestingly this week in The Herald about the astonishing number of Irish officials there are in the professional game. If you stop and think about it, you realise that it's true. Scarcely a week goes by without a new one emerging from obscurity. That will always lead to suspicions of conflict of interest, whatever the reality may be. The action taken against McCloskie for this offence will be instructive.
In truth, this was not a great game of rugby. The decent-sized crowd felt the cold slowly seeming into their toes and that damp cold seemd to afflict the players on the park. There were errors aplenty, lots of huffing and puffing, but very little spark from either team. Ulster had the best of the opening exchanges, but it was Edinburgh who got on the board first. The try was a corker, mind. The quietly impressive Neil Cochrane exploded through a ruck around half way and surged goalwards. Although taken down short, the support got there quickly and worked their way close in, where good hands from Coman put Burleigh over on 10 minutes.
Ulster hit back soon after, Pienaar rounding off some phases in the red zone with an alertly taken try, converted by himself for a 7-5 lead on 13 minutes.
The remainder of the first period was really a tale of multiple infringements and the odd successful pot at goal. Heathcote missed two but nailed three, while Pienaar goaled his only attempt to leave the score at the break 14-10 Embra. One felt that the Gunners had started to get into their stride as the half wore on. That said, there was a feeling that they might come to rue the missed penalties in what was looking like being a tight game.
After the break, Ulster seemed to up the pace a bit and were rewarded in the next 10 minutes with 10 points. All of those points were the result of Cuthbert's errors in defence. Firstly, he dropped a simple gather into touch around the 22, coughing up attacking field position from which Pienaar was to secure a penalty. He then gifted the ball to Ulster, who put in the phases that led to the Cave try. It was now 20-14 in the visitors' favour and it looked like Edinburgh were letting this one get away.
Then came what should have been the turning point on the hour. McCloskie was rightly red carded and Ulster were under the cosh. Their penalty count continued to mount with alacrity and the referee warned them several times for repeated infringements before eventually yellow carding South African van der Merwe on 70 minutes. Heathcote did take advantage with a penalty on 62 minutes, to take the margin down to three. The Gunners' rolling maul was making good ground whenever they set it up and on two occasions they had attacking lineouts where they would almost have certainly have rolled over, either for a try or penalty try. The match was there for the taking. Yet their accuracy at the lineout deserted them and the chances were lost. Meanwhile, they failed to take advantage of the extra men to stretch the 13 man defence and create the gaps in open play.
If the Embramen fall just short of the top 6 this season, they will surely look back at this match and admit that this is where they threw it away. We cannot afford a repeat over the remainder of this season.