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London Irish: 18 (10) Edinburgh Rugby: 23(16)

Crikey! I've been away longer than I thought.  At half time in the Scotland-Ireland match a while back, I took off for foreign parts feeling quite hopeful.  On landing at the other end, I read about the nightmare that had ensued.  I was, once again, reminded of Pierre Berbizier's lament when he coached the Italian national team - "This team does not need a coach; what they need is a psychiatrist".  The 6 Nations campaign for Scotland has been even more frustrating than usual - which is saying something - because it has been clear that this is a squad with talent, who are capable of scoring tries against anyone, but which does not yet have the belief required to be successful. 

The best teams, at whatever level and in whatever sport, visibly grow when under pressure.  They don't shrink.  It is at these times that they really shine - I thought Saracens' excellent injury-time win over Racing Metro earlier this afternoon was a great example.  They didn't deserve to win on the balance of play, but they retained the belief to do so even when Racing really should have picked and driven the match dead.  A striking contrast with Northampton's humiliation against Clermont yesterday, where they were mentally beaten from the off.  This mental strength is a quality that is built over time, and it is developed at club level first, before being translated into international performances.  You win tight games for your club, you win important games for your club, first.  This is a journey that both Scottish teams are on, with Glasgow further down the road than the Embramen.  One may, with some justification, dismiss the European Challenge Cup as a second tier competition.  It is.  But someone has to win it.  And in order to do so, they have to win a pool and then negotiate three rounds of knock-out rugby.  Equally, the capital club are currently chasing sixth in the Pro12 and success will require a fairly high degree of application to deliver. 

A thousand mile journey begins with a single step, as noted rugby pundit Chairman Mao used to say, and today's match in Reading was another step in that journey to enlightenment.  Would the Gunners take it against a London Irish side sitting in the lower reaches of the English league?  Their excellent win at Llanelli last weekend boded well.

With Greig Tonks moving back to full back and Tom Heathcote coming in at first five-eighth, there was a bit of a late reshuffle in the Embra ranks, albeit one that did not really weaken the side.  Tom 'Schooldays' Brown came into the matchday squad as back three cover.  Happily, though, the one-on-one confrontation that I was looking forward to most, Scotland openside Blair Cowan against the Gunners' tyro seven Hamish Watson, was still on in the sparsely populated surroundings of the Madjeski.  In the end, it was Hamish who came out on top with a classic display of openside play.

The Embramen had an early chance, Dave Denton running a kick back, which sparked a counter during which Heathcote was taken high.  SH-C knocked the long, but straight, penalty effort over for a 3-0 lead on one minute.  Something that struck one already was how passive Irish seemed at the breakdown, a tactical gambit that Edinburgh, with two opensides in the starting back row, might exploit.  The visitors also seemed to have the early scrummage edge.  And the driving maul too.  A good first ten minutes for the Embramen.

And with the Embramaul causing Irish all sorts of difficulty off an attacking lineout, try hitman WP 'WP' Nel, peeled off the back of the advancing maul and bullocked over from short range for the first touchdown at their first real try-scoring opportunity.  SH-C's conversion from wide out gave the capital side a handy 10-0 lead on 11 minutes. 

Shortly afterwards, Edinburgh indiscipline defending an attacking mail gave Geraghty the chance to get the home side on the board, but he missed badly. Sammy showed him how it's done on 18 minutes as he duly stroked a kick through the middle of the sticks for a 13-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.  Irish were giving away repeated breakdown penalties under pressure and when they barged Bresler in the air at an attacking lineout, the referee gave their skipper Skivington a warning for the penalty count.  Of course, SH-C then knocked over a third penalty for 16-0 on 21 minutes and it had been one way traffic so far.

As if from nowhere, Irish exploded into life and SH-C had to look lively to foil a good attack on 24 minutes after a tackle was missed in midfield, not for the last time this evening, but the Exiles kicked the succeeding penalty to the corner.  The Edinburgh defence held up and turned ball over.  Exiles had some more pressure shortly afterwards, but loose handling and poor execution in the red zone saw a good chance go to waste.  They looked like a lower table side and the Embramen were comfortable.

Visser took an interception on 32 minutes and had wide open prairie in front of him, but the referee had been playing advantage for a Gunner infringement and Geraghty slotted the simple kick to get Irish on the board at last, 16-3 down.  The home side had started to get some joy wider out and this was some reward for their efforts.  They failed to add to their tally with a late scrum penalty, Geraghty missing a simple chance just before the break.  But in injury time blindside Conor Gilsenan crossed after a flowing backs move, the TMO adjudging that Cowan had not obstructed Ford in opening up a gap in the defence and did not see the hint of a forward pass. It was a close call, but looked the right one.  The conversion left the advantage only 16-10 Edinburgh at the break and game on.  The Gunners had been the better side, but it was the Exiles who were looking more threatening with ball in hand and had some hope for the second period.  Would the Gunners rue their loose last five minutes?

Irish started the second half very well and a wonderful clean break by Ojo in midfield saw them deep into the enemy red zone.  But though they pummelled the Embra defence for over 20 phases, the Gunners tackled them back outside the 22, albeit eventually giving up a penalty, converted by Geraghty.  16-13 Edinburgh on 45 minutes. Edinburgh had their own set of phases in the red zone immediately afterwards, but this time it was they who were pinged, allowing Irish to clear on 48 minutes as Fraser McKenzie and Stuart 'Rambo' McInally came on.  Frankly, the home side were looking much the better side after the interval as Edinburgh seemed to have gone into their shells a bit.

On 52 minutes, the TMO came into play as Steele looked like he had pounced for a try with the referee playing advantage for a Visser high tackle.  The score in the corner was correctly adjudged good and Irish took the lead, 18-16 after the missed conversion.  The Gunners desperately needed to regain control of this match.

At long last, they did.  Patient phases in the red zone, shifting the ball from wing to wing, eventually opened the defence.  When Fife looked like he'd missed the chance to put Strauss over in the corner when he was in space, the ball was recycled swiftly for that graduate of the legendary McKane Park rugby nursery, Fraser McKenzie, to breenge over for his first try of the season, goaled by SH-C for a 23-18 lead as the match moved into the final quarter. 

Irish had a great chance wide out, but the Gunners' scramble defence managed to cover the attack and then turn ball over to allow them to clear the danger.  The Exiles were back immediately but the visiting defence held out again and forced the error.  With just over ten minues left, it was time for the Embramen to gain some field position and run the clock down.  And WP smashed the enemy scrum to set up a penalty cleared to half way.

Fife just failed to gather a Heathcote bomb in the Irish 22 as the visitors returned to the attack, but the referee had played advantage for Denton being taken out in the air at the lineout. The Gunners drove a maul deep into the Irish 22 and then pounded the tryline but lost their discipline somewhat by giving away an accidental offside in attack when a little patience was what was required.  They were, after all, in the lead and deep in enemy territory with seven minutes left.  They had no need to push things.  And Irish managed to break, forcing a defensive penalty, which they kicked to touch in the 22.  They should really have scored from the next play but knocked on over the line.  The referee was playing another advantage, though, and Irish went for another lineout with three minutes left.  Although Edinburgh defended the maul well, they gave away another penalty in defence.  Were they going to throw this one away?

Brilliant, brilliant defence smacked the attacking maul back, Fraser McKenzie making a nuisance of himself again, and the visiting defence forced the knock-on further out to give them a defensive scrummage with just over a minute left on the clock. Somewhere in the melee, John Andress had been carded, though, Roddy going off to let WP come on.

The weakened Edinburgh scrummage gave way and coughed up a penalty. The Irish battered at the line and crossed, but it looked like Dickinson and Man of the Match SH-C had managed to get under the ball.  Once again, the TMO was called on to adjudge and really could not give a try this time with no TV replay showing the ball, let alone any grounding, deep into injury time. He called right once again and the game was over.  Edinburgh will now meet the Newporters in the semi-final, this time at BT Murrayfield.

Some game, some attitude.  They may have made life unnecessarily difficult for themselves.  But this was still a step taken on that thousand mile journey indeed.