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DIAMOND GEEZERS EDGE EMBRAMEN

Edinburgh Rugby: 20 (6) Sale Sharks: 24 (10)



Some years back, I celebrated a significant birthday by attending a pre-international charity match at Meggetland between a veteran Co-Optimists select and an equally experienced Racing Metro outfit.  It was tremendously entertaining stuff.

There were a few legends on show that day - Scott Hastings, Rowan Shepherd and an astonishingly sprightly David Officer.  But Deep Heat can only do so much and there wasn’t a great deal of staying power about the place.  It rather cheered me up.

Edinburgh Rugby had their first hit out of the pre-season at the same venue last Friday evening. At the end of it, I was left feeling equally cheery.

Visiting Sale Sharks have recruited well over the summer, with livewire South African scrum half Faf de Klerk, Australian international James O'Connor and The Beard To Be Feared, Scotland international Josh Strauss, among those having to master the challenging task of locating the AJ Bell stadium.  Throw in two former League standouts, Denny Solomona and Josh Charnley and the Sharks boast tremendous power up front and in the back division.

Indeed, while Solomona has had a fair bit of coverage up to and in the wake of his debut for the English national team, it was Charnley whose powerful running and abrasive defence caught my eye last night.  It was likely his League background that saw him wriggling like - as The Voice Of Rugby would doubtless have said - a demented eel in the tackle that nearly created a great Sale score in the second period.

Ultimately, the difference in a match where the Sharks outscored their hosts four tries to two was in the physicality of their backs.  The Gunners' aggressive defence repeatedly knocked the ball carrier back in midfield.  But Steve Diamond's charges exploited the narrowness of the Embra defence to create opportunities further out.

The match was an opportunity for 'Jarvis' Cockers and his coaching team to see where their squad are in the heat of battle, rather than on the training paddock.  Given injury and resting internationals, it was also a test of the Gunners' squad's depth.  On both fronts, things look good.

Defensively, Edinburgh looked sound; in attack, their running and handling was sharp and accurate.  The interesting thing was how much detail they got right and how few errors there were at this early stage in the season. 

The Gunners' scrummage looked solid on the whole and dominating at times.   Their lineout stuttered, although even there there were positives, notably Fraser McKenzie's commanding second half effort and young Cammy Fenton's outing at hooker. Darryl Marfo may have been carded for a fairly adventurous offence towards the end of the first period, but he has the making of yet another Embra front row cult hero about him. 

Further out, SHC and Duncan Weir TGB looked slick, as did the replacement hinge, the irrepressible Nathan Fowles and Jason 'Baggers' Baggot.  On the wing, Jason Harries is a real find and combined well at times with Glenn Bryce.

Beyond the surprising lack of rust on show and positive individual cameos, what I was most encouraged by was the attitude generally and the work ethic across the squad - callow youths and old codgers alike.  There were a number of younger players who looked to be stepping into leadership roles.  It is little surprise that Callum Hunter-Hill (or CH2 as he will be referred to from now on) skippered the national Under 20s as he has the air of a leader about him.  Yet while I am an unashamed fan of Murray McCallum's, he was another young man who was accepting the responsibility to lead by example in the second period.

Edinburgh took the lead early on, TGB converting a penalty following good work in defence from Phil Burleigh, celebrating his call up to the national training squad.   The advantage didn't last long, though, as the irrepressible de Klerk skipped over from short range to give the Sharks the lead with an unconverted try.  The first quarter saw Sale dominating possession and territory, but the Gunners' defence repeatedly cutting runners down behind the gainline.  A stalemate, but an intriguing one on both sides.

A good run from Harries nearly put Bryce over in the left corner, setting up a period of Edinburgh pressure in the enemy red zone.  While they could not cross, Weir regained the lead with his second three pointer.

But McGuigan recovered the lead, exploiting Edinburgh's narrow defence off off scrum ball to canter over in the left corner, giving the visitors a deserved 10-6 lead at the break.

Jarvis rang the changes at half time, injecting both youth and Sevens wizardry, including the welcome return to Embra colours of Dougie Fife.

And 'Deadly' scored the Gunners opening try after the interval, off good work from young Crosbie and Blairhorn.  The Embramen were back on the attack immediately afterwards, nearly scoring again off a flowing move.  But while the final offload went forward, the pack won a scrum penalty, opted to scrummage then forced a penalty try with a massive drive.  TGB's second conversion gave them a handy 20-10 lead.

The Sharks hit back through a Solomona try as a driving maul rumbled over the line before Russian international Ostrikov smashed over with 10 minutes left to run.

The Embramen's patience seemed to be rewarded when they created a scoring chance off a short range lineout in injury time, but they were adjudged held up over the line and Sale prevailed in a tight contest that will have pleased both head coaches. 

The evening was not without a sense of melancholy, mind.  Standing with the Embra Ultras on the east terrace, I couldn't help but feel that the redevelopment of Meggetland was a missed opportunity to create a stadium that would have been a fitting home for the Embramen.   

Although there were only around 2,200 souls present - albeit that's pretty good for a pre-season match - the atmosphere was excellent.  Sadly, now that the playing fields have been redeveloped, that ship has sailed.

The pre-season continues with a short hop to The Greenyards to face Newcastle Falcons this coming Friday evening.  The Geordies have recruited well over the summer and are being tipped by some as potential playoff material in the Aviva.  They will prove a useful test for the Embramen as they gear up for the opening of the season proper, away to Cardiff on 1 September.