IT'S HODGEY TIME!
Edinburgh Rugby:36 (31) Harlequins:35 (14)
In my new capacity as elite coach-designate, I now have access to the SRU's online repository of rugby knowledge, made available to coaches at all levels across the country.
It's brilliant. Seriously.
Last night, I watched videos of recent coaching masterclasses on attacking play (Jason O'Halloran) and gameplans (Sean Lineen). Although some of the language deployed was not suitable for a family audience, the insights should be compulsory viewing for anyone coaching the sport at any level in this country. I can't wait for Gregor Townsend and Matt Taylor's sessions to make it to the silver screen.
Something that struck me was the contrast with Edinburgh's style of play at the time of recording. It was certainly not entirely in line with the Total Rugby being advocated by those behind the SRU's Technical Blueprint. Today's performance by the men in black at BT Murayfield was a bit closer to that ideal. Something has definitely changed about the Embramen under veteran stand-off Duncan 'Hodgey' Hodge.
Before I launch into a fair bit of purple prose about how exciting this match was - and it was very exciting - it's important to note that there was much that was good about the Edinbokke Era. That is the solid foundation on which to build. The Gunners need to take care not to lose it. After a scintillating first period, they could have lost this one to a Harlequins side that dominated the second period. In a match of sometimes slightly baffling whistling, there was a fair bit of confusion surrounding the late penalty, against Mike Brown, that snuffed out the visitors' last hope of victory. I think it probably was the correct decision but linguistic issues meant it wasn't communicated entirely clearly. A 31-14 lead at the break should not have been cut to a one point final margin. Defence generally, and the maul in particular, needs to be addressed.
But let's not be churlish. This was a cracking win, the Gunners scoring six tries against a strong side and digging very deep at the end to hold on for the victory. While Quins made a number of errors in the first period, they were the result of severe pressure, notably at the breakdown. Turnover ball is so precious, particularly in these times of hyper-organised defences, and the Embramen exploited it to the full this afternoon. I cannot speak highly enough of Hamish Watson in this regard. The openside was pretty handy with ball in hand, too, not least for a superb try.
There was a sense that another young talent was blossoming and is set to become a superstar. That was, of course, at a mere 19 years of age, the full-back who will henceforth be known as King Blairhorn. Time after time, the regal figure broke beautifully from deep, scoring a try and featuring prominently in much that was good about the Embramen's attacking play. He richly deserved his Man of the Match award. This column has destroyed the careers of talented young playmakers before. I feel particularly guilty about Rory Hutton. But The King is destined to be a great one.
Things got off to a distinctly ropey start, though. Quins' maul rumbled ominously forward and Walker alertly scored off the back, the London side's venerable Kiwi playmaker Evans converting for a 7-0 lead on four minutes.
Edinburgh hit back immediately. Allan Dell, a late replacement at loosehead for Rory Sutherland, sprinted over from distance, then Blairhorn took ball off an attacking scrummage to round the defence for a second home try on 12 minutes. Although Jason 'Stovies' Tovey missed both conversion efforts, that didn't look like it would matter at the end of the first quarter. Manu crossed for his fourth try in two matches and The Stovenator's conversion made the lead a handy 17-7.
This latter score was a repeat of Hoyland's productive combination with his No 8s. Last year, the Hoyland-du Preez axis created a few scores. This time, the electric winger broke superbly but was tackled close to the line. He offloaded brilliantly to the supporting breakaway to crash over. Great stuff.
The Gunners were playing so freely that one was reminded of their outing last week in Timisoara. Immediately after a highly astute commentator had tweeted the question, they duly secured the try bonus on 25 minutes - one minute later than last week. This time it was Watson who crossed. The conversion made it 24-7 and Quins were being annihilated.
Gradually the London side fought their way back into this one. While they did not get much change in the backs, their pack were to prove hugely influential. They earned the first of two penalty tries from a maul on 38 minutes. When they opted to run a penalty in injury time, it looked like they might roar back into contention with another. But Hoyland grabbed loose ball and cantered home from around his own 22. It was a fine opportunist effort, leaving the score at the break a commanding 31-14 home advantage. But the first two of five - count 'em - yellows in this match were doled out, somewhat unnecessarily, I felt, to Walker and Tovey for a bit of afters in Hoyland's wake.
It was a pretty bad tempered game at times, though. And after Kyle Sinckler had scored a brilliant try to gladden every tighthead's heart, cruising round the defence in the corner, to bring the margin back to 31-21 on 44 minutes, the third yellow was brandished.
Joe Marler was the offender this time, lifting his man in the lineout but, in so doing, making a surprising amount of distance in an Embra direction. He cut under Ben Toolis in the air, sending the lock somersaulting and landing on what looked more like the 'head and neck area' than the back. These things always look worse in slow motion, particularly when the referee is having to contend with fairly strongly expressed views from the stands. It looked horrendous, but a dark yellow probably was the correct decision.
It didn't matter much, mind, as Gilchrist joined the prop in the bin shortly afterwards for a foolish late tackle on Yarde. Quins really turned the screw during the power play, scoring two maul-related tries to take a 35-31 lead on 67 minutes, their first of the match. Replacement half back Danny Care's intelligent play was a big factor in the improvement in the visitors' threat. Edinburgh were struggling to cope with their power up front; baffling given the Gunners' own strengths in that department. Their tails were up and one feared for the home side.
Bryce did cross shortly after, but there was a clear forward pass in the lead up. But Edinburgh made up for it on 73 minutes. With referee Poite playing advantage for a Quins offence, Hoyland put up a clever chip kick into the danger zone. Tom 'Schooldays' Brown beat that other Brown to the ball and fell over to retake the lead for the Embramen. The Stovenator hit the posts with the realatively easy conversion effort to keep things interesting with time running down.
The subsequent Brown indiscretion, where the full back shoved Hidalgo-Clyne in the face when the latter was attempting to retrieve what was Edinburgh ball for a Quins knock on allowed the Gunners to seal a hard fought, entertaining and hugely important win. They have scored 15 tries in the last couple of matches (although they've conceded seven) and sit three points clear at the top of the pool after the first third of the Euro round robin. Had Quins won today, they'd have been in the box seat. This result means it's all to play for. Bonus points - as always - could be decisive. Yet while conceding two of the blighters today wasn't helpful, if Edinburgh keep scoring as they have been, it may not matter.