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GUNNERS MAKE HISTORY AT MURRAYFIELD

Edinburgh Rugby: 34 (20) London Irish: 11 (6)



I spent my Christmas money this year on the national flag of Fiji.  I just had a spooky feeling that a Fijian gentleman resident in these parts might do something interesting this season.  It's been packed away in my match-going jacket pocket for a bit, but it appeared and was duly waved around as its compatriot, Man Of The Match Netani Talei, powered over for this evening's third Embra try on 72 minutes - and it fluttered about a bit in a cheery sort of way at no-side after Lee Jones' crucial bonus point score had secured a Heineken quarter final berth for the Gunners for the first time in eight years.

There is only one Embra man who has ever been awarded the distinction in this column of being referred to only by his first name.  I refer, of course, to the Meadowbank legend, The Man With The Tan Hugo 'Hugo' Southwell.  But such have been the herculean efforts of Netani over the Heineken campaign so far this season that I feel it only right and proper to add him to the pantheon.  He was immense this evening and, once again, seemed able to breach the gainline pretty much at will.  The awful memory of it will be giving the visitors from Reading sleepless nights for months to come.  Why, they will ask themselves in torment, why did we keep kicking the ball to this guy?

But to do this squad justice, I'd have needed an Argentinian flag, a Dutch flag (for a couple more months at any rate), an enormous pile of saltires, plus an Irish tricolour for coach Bradley into the bargain.  This was a match where everyone stood up to be counted, where they refused to step back - and where they scored four cracking tries to earn the bonus point that left them top of Group 2 on 22 points, one ahead of Cardiff.

They deserved it. 

And there was a sense of destiny about it.  They lost key men Paterson, de Luca and Denton to the starting XV.  But Thompson, Houston and McInally stepped in and played a blinder.  They lost their way a bit on the middle 20 of the second period, when Irish enjoyed a purple patch.  But they stuck in and hit back.  They were still two tries off the bonus with ten minutes left.  But, true to their form this season, they kept going hard to the final whistle and calmly, confidently, professionally notched the crucial two touchdowns.  There is a real maturity about this squad that suggests that they have nothing to fear from anyone left in this competition.  When Toulouse come to call at Murrayfield in April, the Gunners can, should and I hope will be confident that if they perform to their potential, they can get to the semi-finals. And then, who knows?

This was a match where the leaders led.  The experienced players marshalled their troops superbly and everyone put their body on the line.  A key image for me was of captain Greig Laidlaw competing tigerishly for the ball on the floor in the dying seconds to win the loose ball from which Jim Thompson cleared to touch with time expired.  Massive commitment.  The pack stuck it to London Irish who, apart from the spell in the second half, did not have much of an answer.  The physicality was awesome and a perfect riposte to those of us who worried pre-season that these guys would be blown away by bigger packs.  Netani's back row confreres, Roddy 'Roddy' Grant and Stuart 'Rambo' McInally, had huge performances.  The only major disappointment was that Sean Cox did not find the time to have an off-the-ball dust-up with that Kiwi with the girly name.

The pack delivered an excellent platform for the backs, who we all know will hurt any side if they're given decent ball.  The Elissalde-Michalak impersonators were at it again, at times switching positions between phases, which must have been a nightmare to defend.  Wider out, the midfield and back three all had fine games, the Houston-Scott partnership gelling well and I am trying desperately hard not to big up young Matt, who was outstanding in attack and defence, overmuch.  He is a class act who will only get even better. Meanwhile, all of the back three crossed and took their chances very well.

Even Flinty looked up for the fight pre-match and Embra, playing in front of a Heineken record 10,000 plus crowd, could not have had a better start.  Although Jarvis put the Irish ahead with a penalty on eight minutes, Edinburgh had started stronger and it was not long before they notched try number one.  Netani broke off the Irish clearance following the restart and made good ground before livewire Lee Jones took the ball up well.  From the breakdown, Laidlaw's kick behind the defence saw Visser, on the wrong wing, touch down for the converted try on 11 minutes.  The Gunners were not to be headed for the rest of the match.

Edinburgh kept the pressure up and Laidlaw nudged them further ahead with a penalty on 18 minutes following a number of close in drives in the enemy red zone.  The Gunners were busy earning the right to go wide in the early stages.  Very mature. Although Jarvis pulled three points back shortly after, Laidlaw was again on the mark on the half hour, leaving Edinburgh 13-6 ahead just before the break.  The Irish defence was creaking as the Embra wide men stretched them and one felt that referee Fitzgibbon was a mite indulgent of some of their breakdown work.

Try number two came on 36 minutes.  Again, good work close-in by the pack committed the defence before the ball was shipped right.  For an awful second, it looked like a 2-0 overlap might be butchered, but Thompson held on for the try, goaled from wide out, naturally, by the skipper.  20-6 Embra at the half and the home side were good value for it.  While victory looked reasonably secure, and Cardiff at that point were 24-23 down to Racing, could they kick on in the second period to secure the bonus point they needed to win the group?

It didn't look so likely in the opening exchanges.  While Irish's back play had looked pretty laboured, they enjoyed plenty of field position and battered away at the Emba line for ages. To their credit, they spurned the easy penalty kick twice and kept boshing away.  But the Gunner defence was sound and eventually an Irish error allowed them to clear.  This could have been a shift in momentum, a turning point, but the Embra determination not to yield ensured that it wasn't.

On the hour, it was the home side enjoying field position and pressure once again.  And it seemed that Visser had scored another try on the wrong wing only to be called back by Fitzgibbon for what was deemed to be a forward pass by Roddy Grant earlier in the move.  The television replay seemed to contradict the Irish whistler's call. 

And there were derisive snorts about Irish refereeing among the Embra tifosi when, five minutes later, replacement Joseph scored a fine breakaway try for Irish.  It was conjured out of nothing but needed good hands and good finishing.  Jarvis' failure with the conversion saw Embra still comfortable 20-11 clear going in to the last ten.

And it was then that players and supporters alike drew themselves up for a big finish.  Edinburgh won an attacking lineout and took the ball up several times before Netani surged over through heavy traffic for the converted score.  Try number three.

Like the best sprinters, Edinburgh this season have kept running full pelt until ten metres beyond the finishing line.  They keep going right until the final whistle and this has paid dividends for them.  They had a scrummage on half way with five minutes left.  Netani sparked an attack off the base of the scrum, feeding the surging Houston on the right, who made great ground.  But his pass was just behind the supporting Jones and went into touch.  Embra were playing the match in the right place, though, and the bonus was still on.

Four minutes left on the clock, Edinburgh have an attacking scrummage in the enemy red zone.  The crowd are positively baying for Irish blood in a most unseemly manner.  Netani picks up scrum ball and surges right.  He feeds Rambo who straightens and gives the perfect pass to the flying Jones.  Lee canters over in the corner.  No-one cares what happens with the conversion, but Captain Fantastic casually knocks it over anyway.  A 34-11 hammering and we know that we are in the quarters somehow.  Joy is unconfined on and off the park.

A few minutes later, well-organised members of the tifosi equipped with radios spread the news - the Blues have won, but without a BP.  For the first time ever, Edinburgh have won their Heineken group and will have a home tie in the quarters.  The draw subsequently pits us against our old sparring partners - Stade Toulousain.  That is going to be a cracking match between two sides for whom attritional rugby is a low priority.  Whether this was your first or your hundred and first Embra match, don't dare miss it.

There's plenty of fun to be had before then, though, starting with the visit of the star-studded Ospreys to Murrayfield on Friday 10 February.  Should be another great match.

MAN OF THE MATCH: NETANI.

SCORERS:

Edinburgh: Laidlaw 4C 2P, Netani 1T, Visser 1T, Jones 1T, Thompson 1T

London Irish: Jarvis 2P, Joseph 1T

TEAMS:

Edinburgh: Thompson, Jones, Houston, Scott, Visser, Laidlaw, M. Blair, Jacobsen, Ford, Cross, Gilchrist, Cox, McInally, Grant, Netani.Replacements: Gilding for Cross (73), Lozada for Gilchrist (73). Not Used: Walker, Traynor, Godman, T. Brown, Hunter, Rennie.

London Irish: D. Armitage, Ojo, Spratt, Hape, Thompstone, Jarvis, Hodgson, Corbisiero, Buckland, Halavatau, Sandford, Casey, Garvey, Sisi, Gray.Replacements: Shingler for Ojo (58), Joseph for Spratt (58), Samson for Hodgson (52), Lahiff for Corbisiero (52), Blaney for Buckland (38), Rautenbach for Halavatau (47), Kennedy for Sandford (52). Not Used: Evans.

Att: 10,892

Ref: Fitzgibbon (IRFU).