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GUNNERS EDGED AT THE AVIVA

Ulster: 22 (13) Edinburgh Rugby: 19 (9)



If playing in the Heineken pool stages is the rugby equivalent of setting off from Everest Base Camp over the Khumbu icefall, then reaching the semis is a bit like getting to Camp 3, a towering 7,200 metres above sea level.  It's a fantastic achievement, which even nowadays not many folk manage.  Only another 1648 metres to go to the top of the world - and you've already ascended nearly 2,000 of the blighters on the mountain.  But it gets tougher the further up you get; little slips that wouldn't matter further down suddenly matter a great deal this far up. Margins of safety and of success are incredibly tight.

A bit of a weird metaphor, maybe.  But regular readers are used to that sort of thing round here.  And it reflects the conflicting emotions I feel about this season's Heineken adventure.  On the one hand, the Gunners have made history in many ways.  First home Heineken quarter for a Scottish side; first quarter final win for a Scottish side; first semi final appearance for a Scottish side.  And they arguably should have added to that list the distinction of becoming the first Scottish finalist.  They had the chances to win against Ulster yesterday; had they taken them in the first period they might have opened up a match-winning lead. They should be proud of what they have achieved.

Statutory Matt Scott Tribute Paragraph: during the journey, Edinburgh have unearthed some real gems among the young folk, with the great man putting Jim Thompson over for the Gunners' late try yesterday to round off another fine display.  Tom 'Schooldays' Brown, Grant Gilchrist, Harry Leonard and, among the codgers, Lee Jones, Netani Talei and Sean Cox, to name but a few, have also emerged as key figures.  Elsewhere, Mike Blair will surely have added a few euros to his next employer's pay cheque with a high class display, while Greig 'Better Than Michalak' Laidlaw's burgeoning reputation as a multi-talented, multi-purpose half back who is also a fine leader of men was only further burnished in this match.  Dave Denton is fast becoming the sort of talismanic backrower that we could build our team around - the young economist could be Embra's answer to Ferris or Harinordoquy.

But they lost.  And they lost because of a few words - depth, accuracy, experience.  Small words with a big impact.  The two Rabo matches leading up to this clash, against Leinster and Cardiff, demonstrated that the current squad cannot fight on two fronts at once.  That means that they were unable to bring on quality up front early enough to maintain the momentum yesterday. Their lack of accuracy cost them, with handling errors really killing scoring opportunities.  Those were a consequence of the high-risk offloading gameplan they played, which so nearly came off.  But they were also a consequence of a lack of experience of operating at the intensity seen in this level of Heineken rugby.  When to pass and when to go to ground; when something's on and when it's not; when to be patient and when to go for the jugular - as perhaps they should have done when Wannenburg was in the bin.

The temptation is to say 'didn't they do well?'.  And they did indeed.  But the likes of Chris Bonington, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston would not have been satisfied only reaching Everest Camp 3; that's why they all summited during their careers, Bonington returning until his 50s before he made it. Neither should Edinburgh Rugby be satisfied with reaching a semi-final.  If the post-match tweeting is anything to go by, the most encouraging thing about this Heineken run is that they are not.  By contrast with the quarter final season, this time it looks like Edinburgh will build on the progress made both on and off the field this term.  The budget to strengthen the squad is there, with some quality signings already in the bag - notably a high class South African tighthead to fill a longstanding gap in the squad - and hopefully a couple more to come.  The off-field operation has performed superbly, not least in delivering a UK record crowd for a Heineken quarter final match.  They are in a good position to build the regular support on the back of The 38,000.  And the entire squad has now experienced Heineken semi-final rugby and will know what to expect next time.  They will be all the better for it.  It took Leinster the pain of losing to rivals Munster in the semis, who themselves had become champions only after a few setbacks, before they became perennial European contenders.  This squad has the chance to do the same.  They seem to be hungry for more.

This year, though, Ulster proved deserved finalists.  Edinburgh, like Toulouse in the quarters, thought that the scrum would be Ulster's weak link in the absence of their All Black import Afoa.  In the end, as at Murrayfield, it proved a key strength - their sole try coming off the back of one.  They defended well throughout and were smart enough to respond to their first half shellacking by playing most of the second period in enemy territory.  This field position gave them the opportunities they needed, the superb Springbok Pienaar's boot ultimately winning the day for them.  Pre-match, coach Bradley had warned that he would punish indiscipline from anywhere on the park.  He duly did that.  Indeed, all of Ulster's points came from their South African contingent, who proved the difference for them and sent them Twickers-ward to play Leinster, who have just beaten Clermont 19-15 in France.  Not only is this to be the first final without either a French or English club participating, but it will be, self-evidently, the first all Irish final.  The Dubliners will go into the final as favourites, and rightly so.  But you wouldn't bet against these guys turning them over in what should be a superb finale to an intriguing tournament.

Pienaar and Laidlaw traded penalties in the opening stages.  But although Laidlaw's second penalty put the visitors into the lead on 12 minutes, they lost it almost immediately, South African number 8 Wannenburg taking advantage of a huge Ulster scrummage to crash over, Pienaar's conversion putting the Ulstermen 10-6 up on 13 minutes.

Visser came close on 22 minutes, but the Gunners failed to control scrum ball in attacking position, allowing Pienaar to clear the pressure.  They were on top, though, and another opportunity to hit back came when another South African, Terblanche, was carded for punching Ross Ford.  A sign that the men from the province were feeling the heat.  Ulster's defence and poor Embra handling foiled several opportunities, though, and Pienaar scored just before his compatriot returned, his second penalty taking the lead to 13-6.

Ferris was pinged on the stroke of half time, allowing Laidlaw to reduce the gap to 13-9.  All to play for in the second half.  In front of thousands of increasingly nervous Ulstermen, Edinburgh had bossed the play, but had not nailed the chances they'd had.  Would they come to regret it?

It didn't look like it on 44 minutes, as good chasing by Scott forced an Ulster penalty, which Laidaw converted to narrow the gap to just 13-12.  Ulster turned up the pressure over the next ten minutes, but Edinburgh held out - one particularly memorable incident seeing Laidlaw rip the ball from the massive Wannenburg, charging towards the Embra line.  Eventually, though, the pressure told and Pienaar knocked over two penalties either side of the hour.  Again, snatching at chances denied the Gunners precious points after that and it was Ulster again who scored next, Edinburgh's front row standing up under pressure on 74 minutes for the Man of the Match to take the gap beyond a converted try with his fifth penalty.

If this year's Heineken campaign has taught us anything, it is that this Edinburgh side do not know when they are beaten.  They have come back from worse than this.  Sure enough, they ran a penalty in their own 22 with the clock running down.  Pretty unpromising move, you'd think.  But you'd be wrong.  Netani's trademark run exploded to the half way line and deep into the Ulster half.  Scott then turned provider for Jim Thompson to cross.  Yet although Laidlaw converted to narrow the deficit to three, time had run out.  The dream was over - at least for this year.

 

MAN OF THE MATCH : RUAN PIENAAR, the difference between the two teams.

SCORERS:

Ulster: Pienaar 5P 1C, Wannenburg 1T 

Edinburgh: Laidlaw 4P 1C, Thompson 1T  

TEAMS:

Ulster : S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court (P McAllister 78), R Best, D Fitzpatrick (A Macklin 65), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris (L Stevenson 78), W Faloon (R Diack 73), P Wannenburg

Edinburgh Rugby: T Brown; L Jones (J Thompson 70), N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw (capt), M Blair; A Jacobsen (K Traynor 78), R Ford, G Cross (J Gilding 73), G Gilchrist (S Turnbull 78), S Cox, D Denton, R Rennie (R Grant 56), Netani

Att: 45,147

Referee: Poite (FRU)