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GUNNERS REMAIN IN EUROPE. BUT EXIT IS NIGH

Edinburgh: 8 (3) Stade Rochelais: 13 (8)



I don't know about you, but I've given up speculating about whether there will be a Brexit deal or no deal.  International trade negotiations, and particularly EU talks, generally involve both sides kite flying in public, pointing fingers at the other guys and generally using PR to pressure the opposing side into moving.  We might get a big anouncement tomorrow.  Or we might not.  But what is certain is that what we read in the press is not the full story.

In the more prosaic rugby world, for now at least, the Embramen remain in Europe. The two pool format may be different in this unusual, truncated season, but the old certainties remain.  One of those is that you can't afford to lose your home games.  With only four pool matches this term, that is all the more so, particularly with home and away outings against Stade Rochelais and Sale Sharks.  In essence, it's three wins or out.  Tonight's Pool A defeat to Top 14 leaders La Rochelle at BT Murrayfield was therefore not a good start to Edinburgh's Heineken campaign. One more loss and the Gunners will definitively be out.

'Scotland, erm, Edinburgh stop!' tonight's referee, Luke Pearce, shouted during the early stages of this match.  And the Gunners did indeed welcome back their international contingent en masse this evening.  It's been a rocky road in their absence, but the best performers in that time have often been the least experienced of the understudies.  More international calls is a sign of Edinburgh's progress.  But it does mean that it's ever more important that even the youngest Gunners are battle hardened, including one of the starting locks, Andrew Davidson.  Continuing to grow depth in the squad will enable Edinburgh to remain competitive in future international windows.  This evening showcased the depth the squad does have when there are no national calls.  The starting XV was strong, with quality ready to come off the bench.

Richard 'Cockers' Cockerill certainly looked fired up as he was overseeing the Gunners warm up.  As ever facing French teams, while Stade brought loads of quality among the brylcreme boys in the backs steered by Jules Plisson, Edinburgh needed to dominate up front to prevail.  Ultimately, the French pack were to prove the difference, through the inspiration of their lock, Man of the Match Will Skelton, and the relentless, ubiquitous carrying of Greg Alldritt.

On a decent night for running rugby, the Embramen were under pressure early.  They began moving the ball but an error at a breakdown enabled the visitors to turn over and attack down the right.  Dean was forced to carry over and concede a scrum five.  But the pack did superbly, WP Nel working his magic to force his man to concede in the defensive scrummage, enabling the Gunners to clear.  

Plisson nailed a long penalty shot from half way on 11 minutes to give the French side an early lead. Both sides were looking to move the ball and it was shaping up to be an entertaining match.  After a period of French domination, it looked like the galloping Australian Skelton had put Kiwi half back Tawera Kerr-Barlow over in the corner, but a brilliant tackle from 'Rambo' McInally denied the visitors a certain try. 

But La Rochelle's sheer domination of territory and possession was bound to tell at some point.   Lovely sleight of hand shortly afterwards duly gave Stade reward for their pressure as their South African winger Rhule crossed for the five pointer.  They are the top try scorers in the Top 14 and it was obvious why.  0-8 La Rochelle on 26 minutes after the missed conversion and they were good value for the lead.

It took the Gunners until 35 minutes to get into the enemy red zone, but they forced La Rochelle to concede not one but two penalties under pressure. 'Piet' van der Walt duly slotted the penalty.  3-8 in favour of the French side at the break, but the Embramen will have been encouraged that, if they secured more field position in the second period, there would be scoring chances for them.

Scottish qualified kiwi first five-eighth Ihaia West came on after the break to replace Plisson and his kick into the Gunners' 22 bamboozled Pyrgos, while Chris Dean looked for the penalty rather than playing the whistle.  Stade pounced on the bouncing ball in the ensuing guddle and full back Sinzelle crossed on 43 minutes.  Again, the conversion was missed but the lead was now a handy 10 points.  Edinburgh desperately needed time with ball in hand, but their handling was letting them down when they did have it.

On 50 minutes, Rambo made the call to knock a kickable penalty into the corner.  With a further advantage at the lineout, the ball was shipped out and The Sweet Prince knocked a gorgeous grubber through the rushing defence for Bennett to chase.  While it bobbled just out of the centre's grasp, Blairhorn managed to beat Sinzelle to get the touchdown.  Although van der Walt missed the conversion, The King's try made it an 8-13 match on 54 minutes.

The Gunners started to freshen things up around the hour, with Berghan coming on for WP and 'Maggie' Bradbury replacing Big Bill Mata, who had picked up a hand injury earlier on. One felt that the momentum was starting to shift a little towards the home side as the visitors started to tire. But Davidson was a mite unlucky to be pinged at the breakdown on 66 minutes.  Happily from an Embra-minded perspective, West sliced the easy kick and this one was still finely balanced on 8-13.  It was the sort of match where the mentally stronger side would prevail.

As the match went into the final 10, future Lion Rory Sutherland won a scrum penalty and The King kicked to the corner. Stade were penalised as they joined the maul from an offside position.  With less than five minutes to run, this looked like it might be the match.  Off the attacking lineout, Watson dropped the ball in the subsequent phase.  The ball clearly went backwards but Stade had the defensive scrum five.  They won a penalty and West cleared their lines, leaving the Embramen to attack from deep.  And that they were just not able to do as la Rochelle ran out deserved winners in a tight match.  They had the stronger defence and a touch of inspiration when it was needed in attack.

With the losing bonus point, the Gunners are not out of Europe quite yet.  As Cockers said after no side, they are a good side and can compete at this level. They will go to Manchester to play an unsettled Sale club next weekend with nothing to lose.  But this reverse already makes it very difficult for them to reach the knock out stages.