JEKYLL AND HYDE PERFORMANCE ROUNDS OFF THE SEASON
Edinburgh Rugby: 17 (17) Cardiff Blues: 21 (7)
As this Embra season subsides to a close, the Gunners rounded off with a disappointing reverse to visiting Cardiff Blues. They contrived to follow a strong first half performance with a second period of such unremitting hopelessness that observers were left wondering whether BT Murrayfield had disappeared down a cosmic wormhole and somehow travelled back in time to the dark days of the Bradley regime.
The loss saw the capital side fall to a final position of ninth in the league. From having a sixth place finish in their own hands two matches ago, they eventually finished third out of the three clubs that were comfortably off Champions Cup qualification. While the league has been very tight this year, in large measure due to the World Cup, it is deeply disappointing to finish ahead only of two Italian teams who gave up the ghost some time ago and perennial strugglers Newport, who never got to the stage even of flattering to deceive. The starting XV boasted a strong pack, all of whom will be here next season. By contrast, the starting back division featured three players who will be leaving. In some ways, that's a metaphor for where the club is at the moment. There are few stronger forward units in the league and they dominated this match in the first period. It was no surprise that Anton 'Ants' Bresler was awarded the coveted Caullie Lug after the match, as he exemplifies the hard-nosed, brutally effective style that typifies Embra forward play.
But the back division so rarely does a great deal useful with the possession that results. It is not for want of talent. To take two examples, Damien Hoyland has been a real star this term, while Tom 'Schooldays' Brown is an underrated performer, a little in the manner that Lee Jones was when at Murrayfield. But they somehow manage to make the whole less than the sum of its parts. Having not one but, hopefully, two quality playmakers at 10 next term, in the form of Duncan Weir and Jason Tovey, should help to provide some direction, while veteran stand off Duncan 'Hodgey' Hodge, with a full pre-season with the squad, should chuck in the odd move or two into the gameplan. But each and every scrum half in the squad is going to have to sort out his service and the tactical kicking has got to improve. Above all, people are going to have to be rather smarter in their decision making. Particularly in the second half, where attacking ball was a rarity from a Gunners point of view, far too often players were trying miracle passes that simply were not on. Cooler heads at key moments would have enabled them, firstly to relieve the incessant pressure they were under by building field position and, secondly, actually to take the opportunities they had. And they had enough to win this match comfortably.
At the end of each season, there are tearful farewells for those departing. This year is no exception. Some, like Mike Coman, Jack Cuthbert and Sam Beard have been key figures in a low profile way. Others, such as Matt Scott, Alex Toolis and, one hopes, Dougie Fife, may well go on to greater things elsewhere, benefitting from a new challenge. All have been part of a tight knit group of players in an Edinburgh squad whose unity can and should be the foundation from which to kick on. I am sometimes saddened to see people on the outside refer to players as if they were inanimate objects. These are young men with hopes, fears and ambitions. They are paid to play the sport they love, but they are human beings. Wherever life takes each of them next, I wish them every happiness and success.
And it looked like those departing were to be given a fine send off in the first period. The Gunners' perfectly balanced back row, with returning Nasi Manu having a fine outing at blindside, threatened to blow away the lightweight visiting breakaways. They enjoyed plenty of pressure early on and came close until WP 'WP' Nel won his first scrum penalty against Gethin Jenkins on 14 minutes. Tovey kicked to the corner and the maul rumbled goalwards. The Embramen put in a couple of phases moving infield before Kennedy alertly switched play to the narrow side. Cornell du Preez took the ball up well and then a classic offload out of the back of his hand put the support runner over in the corner. Astonishingly, it was not Damien Hoyland, as usual, but the supporting Watson. Jason 'Stovies' Tovey's conversion from wide out hit the post, but the home side were good value for their lead.
It was all Edinburgh and it wasn't long before they added to their advantage. This time, they surged back from the restart and probed in the enemy red zone before Scott made ground and reached over to dot down for a valedictory touchdown, goaled this time by The Stovenator. 12-0 up at teh end of teh first quarter and a win, quite probably with a bonus, was looking on the cards.
A feature of Edinburgh's play this afternoon was their defence and, sure enough, tehy soaked up Cardiff's first real concerted period opf pressure comfortably. But the Welshmen were patient and eventually opened the gap for centre and eventual man of the match Lee-Lo to cross. Kiwi playmaker Anscombe's conversion narrowed the gap to five on the half hour.
But the Gunners stretched their lead after a thrilling break from Hoyland and Watson had taken the ball into teh Cardiff 22 once again. This time, when the ball was moved left, Scott's clever grubber behind the onrushing defence and his subsequent dribble allowed Brown to score. The Stovenator somehow managed to hit the same post with the conversion, but the Embramen went in at the break a handy 17-7 up. Although Cardiff had started to gain a bit of a foothold, it was the men in red and black who looked comfortably the better side and well placed to kick on in the second period.
Quite how they managed to chuck it all away in reality is beyond me. Part of it was mental - their discipline let them down far too often and they played far too much of the rest of the match deep in their own half. While they defended very well, and it was a bit of a miracle that it took so long for the Blues to score again, this was not smart rugby. When one is clearing one's lines, for example, it's generally a good idea to find touch rather than kick the ball directly to someone in the back three in acres of space. Such an error led directly to Smith's try on 66 minutes, created by a rampaging Fish speeding in from distance after fielding SHC's kick. That had been preceded by American lock Dolan charging over on the hour following repeated patient phases.
Only in the dying minutes did the Gunners have any sort of field position, but in truth they did not look like they had the nous to take advantage. While results elsewhere would have denied Edinburgh sixth place even had they won with a bonus, it was nevertheless hugely disappointing and not a little irritating to end the season on such a low. In a not so hugely contrived metaphor, there were echoes of the season in this one match. A strong start and good position at halfway gone to waste with a poor finish. Chances to win lost through a lack of focus.
It's been a frustrating old season. A lot of good stuff and some real highs, but some pretty dire performances too. I'm left feeling that we should have done better than we did. Hope springs eternal, mind you, and I'll be back for more (hopefully not quite the same) next term. I hope you will be too.