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THE IRON FIST IN THE VELVET GLOVE

RC Toulonnais: 17 (12) Edinburgh Rugby: 28 (8)




"WE ARE DETERMINED THAT BEFORE THE SUN SETS ON THIS TERRIBLE STRUGGLE OUR FLAG WILL BE RECOGNISED THROUGHOUT THE WORLD AS A SYMBOL OF FREEDOM ON THE ONE HAND AND OF OVERWHELMING FORCE ON THE OTHER."  -General George C. Marshall 

That is possibly my favourite inscription on any monument anywhere - the National WWII Memorial in Washington DC.  Although it seems like a contradiction in terms, it encapsulates how the United States has traditionally seen its role in the world - the guarantor of freedom and liberal values.  The iron fist in the velvet glove.

Of course, a mere game of rugby is a universe away.  But at Stade Mayol last night, Edinburgh put in a performance that was very much the iron fist in the velvet glove as they all but secured a place in the knock out stages of the Heineken Champions Cup. That they bested another massive French pack up front was not a surprise.  What was exciting was the panache they showed in attack.  As the Gunners have earned respect this term, that has been tempered by suggestions that they are conservative and limited in attack.  Frankly, a bit boring.

Well, where do you start?  As ever, Big Bill Mata won another Man of the Match for just another triumphant shift with ball in hand.  His over the shoulder offload that sent Jimmy Johnstone away for what is a try of the season candidate was vintage BBM.  But Jimmy himself shone as creator, his gorgeously crafted grubber putting The King Blairhorn over for a score.  'Mr Darcy' Graham, the tiny man with the massive heart, bulldozed his way through his man for a try off a sublime offload from future Scotland captain Jamie (T) Ritchie.  And those are just edited highlights of the Gunners in attack.

As time ticked down with the match out of sight, there were echoes of Jim Baxter's swaggering keepy uppies at Wembley in that famous 3-1 Scotland win in 1967 as Gilchrist, Fraser McKenzie and The Greatest Schoeman got in on the audacious one handed offloading act.  Total rugby was, after all, the creation of Dunfermline legend Jim Greenwood and every club needs the silky skills of a Dunfy boy, as Big Fraz is.

Earlier this season, the Embramen struggled to win away from home.  They seem to be over that now.

It was an outstanding all round performance - from dominating ball and field position in the first period, to the coaching adjustments made at half time that led to total control and the 20 points that took this match out of sight in the second period.

Statistics can sometimes paint a misleading picture.  But Edinburgh dominated possession throughout (65% to 35%) and territory (73% to 27%).  Double the passes, double the rucks won, nearly triple the line breaks, less than half the tackles made.  The difference between the first and second periods was purely in accuracy in execution.  While the Gunners had the ball in the right places, handling errors let them down in the first 40.

When they sharpened up after the break, they effectively won the match in 20 minutes.

It was such a treat to see two of the best hookers in world rugby - Ghirado and McInally - square off against each other.  And it was advantage to the Frenchman early as he overpowered the defence to score from five metres.  The Gunners had got off to a nervy start and the score came after Edinburgh had spilled the opening kick off and were penalised at the breakdown.  A maul followed by a few quick phases saw the home side 5-0 to the good.

Particularly at professional level, matches are often won in the head.  This was a big test for the Embramen as they were now facing a Toulon side with their tails up.  But it was a test they passed with flying colours.

'Piet' van der Walt knocked over an offside penalty on eight minutes.  Then a cracking try.  After a few forward drives in the enemy 22, the ball was shifted across to Johnstone, who stepped inside and straightened the line.  From the tackle, Pyrgos fed Ritchie, whose offload out the back of his hand found Mr Darcy on the wing.  The Hawick star still had a lot to do but skipped past his man then simply ran over full back Smaili to put Edinburgh ahead on 14 minutes.

On 21 minutes, the Gunners' defence committed what was, I'm afraid, a classic schoolboy error as they turned their back on a penalty awarded in their 22.  Toulon No 8 Lakafia was wide awake, though, and took a quick tap and headed goalwards.  Although he was stoped just short, Isa touched down through the bodies immediately after.  That gave Toulon a 12-8 lead at the break.  All to play for, yes, but the Gunners had conceded two tries that were very much out of character and needed to tighten up their discipline.

The second half could not have started better from a blue and burnt orange perspective. On 43 minutes, another flowing attack off first phase saw Johnstone thread a grubber through the onrushing defence as Blairhorn sprinted up on his outside.  The King did not break stride, the ball sat up perfectly for him to gather and cross for a superb try.  van der Walt's fine conversion from wide out pushed the visitors back into the lead at 15-12.

The first five-eighth added a three pointer on 47 minutes as the Gunners' pack forced a scrum penalty in the red zone.  He followed that with another on the hour that stretched the advantage to 21-12, crucially, beyond a converted try.

Yet it was a penalty conceded by the Edinburgh playmaker that actually began the passage of play that decided this match on 63 minutes. Webb took a quick tap on half way and broke through the defence.  It looked like Toulon had to score.  But Gorgodze spilled the ball forward on the Edinburgh 22. 

Then came what is fast becoming a classic Edinburgh score on the counter.  The King gathered and countered against a fractured defence, feeding BBM.  The Fijian back rower stepped one defender, beat another, then slung out an astonishing offload.  Johnstone, at full pelt in suppport, managed to check his run and reach back to take the ball one handed, high behind him, then turned on the afterburners and beat the Toulonnais defence from their 10 metre line.  van der Walt's conversion stretched the advantage to 28-12 and there was no going back for the former champions.

While Toulon kept at it, Savea scoring a well worked try on 70 minutes, one never really felt that Edinburgh were going to emerge with anything other than a fully deserved win.

Montpellier's bonus win earlier in the day makes next Friday evening's match at BT Murrayfield a winner take all affair.  To guarantee qualification without relying on other results, Edinburgh must win.  One feels that 'Jarvis' Cockers will be true to his word and ensure that the Gunners approach the biggest match of their season so far in the right frame of mind.  I expect the iron fist in the velvet glove to prevail once again and the Gunners to secure a home quarter final.