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THE KING AND BRAAI

Edinburgh: 41 (15) Bath Rugby: 19 (19)



When Blair Kinghorn spots a gap in the defence and surges through, either to score himself or to put a support runner away, I am transported back to the first time I saw ‘Chariots of Fire’ in the early 80s.  It is the story of two men who triumphed in the 1924 Olympics, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, overcoming challenges specific to them.  Liddell’s story, as athlete, rugby international and missionary, is well known.  What always sticks in my mind about the film is how well it portrays the experience of Liddell running the 400 metres.  Time slows down, he sees only his lane and hears only Vangelis playing in the background.  And he feels utter joy in his running.

 

I feel that when I watch The King when he is on song, as he was at the DAM Health stadium last night where the Embramen ran out, in the end, comfortable winners over Bath in the EPCR Challenge Cup round of 16.  Given their high ranking in the tournament, the Gunners will host Wasps in the quarter finals over the weekend of 6-8 May.  And, if my maths is correct, would have a home semi-final tie were they to prevail over the Coventry men.

 

This was another outing when The King put on a regal performance that showed why he is seen as a more than credible option at 10 for the national side.  He scored one, created another and gelled superbly with James Lang, who put in a fine performance in what was a traditional New Zealand second five-eighth auxiliary playmaker role.  In a back division full of menace in attach and solidity in defence, only Ben Vellacott had a bit of an off night by his standards.  One felt that replacement half-back Henry Pyrgos added just a bit more composure when he entered the fray, enabling the home team to kick on to their six try win.  It was their first knock out win in any competition in seven years.

 

But the brylcreme boys were given that platform by the pack, who hung in there in a physical first period, then gained the upper hand in the second as the Bath pack tired.  It was appropriate that The Greatest Schoeman gained Star Of The Match honours as he seemed to be everywhere.  His own try was reward for a busy and effective night, not least in anchoring a home scrummage that, despite the absence of scrumming legend WP, more than held its own in the tight.  Yet while the Embra tifosi adore serenading the big man with his trademark ‘Schoo!’ whenever he has the ball, we all know that he is but one of 13 piano shifters whose power and physicality are needed to unleash the firepower further out. 

 

To take only two examples, Ben Muncaster had what has become a typical Muncastrian outing at blindside.  He richly deserved his Scottish Building Society Player of the Month award for March.  So quickly is he progressing that Police Scotland have set up a speed trap outside the Gunners’ changing room.  And Connor Boyle, who added another fine try to his tally last night, is proving to be a smiling assassin, all menace and swagger, with a big pile of talent in the middle.  Edinburgh are some way away from having the intimidating depth that Leinster do, but the back row is one area where the challenge for Mike Blair and Stevie Lawrie is to keep everyone happy, rather than scrabbling to find a back row who can make the opposition extremely unhappy.

 

And what a back row tussle we had at Minifield!  For Bath, Scotland international Josh Bayliss at blindside, England international Sam Underhill at openside and Wales and Lions star Talupe Faletau at No8.  Particularly in the first half, where Bath had the edge, dominating territory and possession, Bayliss played like a man making a point to the national selectors, while Underhill capped a strong performances with two smart tries.  Faletau had a quiet game, though, and faded during the second period, as Bath as a whole did.  While they got off to a strong start and led at the break, one always felt that the Gunners had a few more gears to click through, as did indeed prove to be the case in the end.  Jonathan Joseph looked dangerous coming in at first receiver at times, not least in creating Bath’s opener, while Tom de Glanville was imperious fielding the high ball in attack as well as defence.  But perhaps young Orlando Bailey summed up their evening – some of his kicking and distribution was first rate, but his place kicking in the first period was so erratic that skipper Charlie Ewels gave the tee to the experienced Ben Spencer instead, who went on to struggle similarly.  For all the ball and field position the visitors had before the break, they should have been further ahead.  The Embramen made them pay for that.

 

The visitors got off to a flyer.  Joseph put Underhill through a gap to make great ground.  Although he was stopped just short, quick ball maintained the momentum and the openside himself managed to navigate the ball through defenders’ feet to dot the ball down on three minutes, Bailey kicking the extras.

 

After Bailey had missed a relatively straightforward penalty, it was the Gunners who were next on the board with an excellent try off first phase.  Lang’s flip out the back put Blairhorn arcing away through the gap.  The King committed his man and put Emiliano ‘The Boff’ Boffelli over – 5-7 Bath on 10 minutes.  And the Argentine superstar put the Embramen ahead for the first time in the match, against the run of play, on 22 minutes with a penalty.

 

Although Bailey missed another relative sitter soon after, Bath’s control was rewarded with Underhill’s second on 26 minutes.  Edinburgh looked to have ridden their luck in defence and were looking to clear from a ruck just out from their own tryline.  The ball ended up on the line, meaning there was no offside.  Underhill was first to spot this and dived to touch down for a smart try.  The conversion was missed, though, and Bath were only 8-12 up when they should have been further ahead.

 

On 32 minutes, The King was this time the beneficiary of another Lang flip, which released the playmaker to glide through the defence and cross for the try that retook the lead, 15-12.  Ben Spencer closed the scoring for the half on 35 minutes, nipping over from close range after the Gunners had repelled a few forward drives.  19-15 at the break.  But while few among the Embra Ultras could have grudged Bath the advantage, there were also precious few who were ringing the alarm bells just yet, given Bath’s form this season.  It also felt like the west wind, which had seemed to cause even Henry Immelman a few problems in getting distance in the opening period, would help the Gunners to build field position in the second.  Doing a bit better than 28% possession would also be quite handy.

 

Normally, one expects a side to have spent so much time defending to have punched itself to a standstill after an hour.  Last night at the DAM Health, the reverse proved to be true.  The Embramen blitzed the visitors with 26 unanswered points, including four tries, after the break, leaving many among the edimbourgeoisie only disappointed that they haven’t beaten the 50 point mark for the first time in four home matches.

 

First on the scoreboard was Schoeman, crashing over from short range after ‘Eric’ Sykes had come close.  The attacking position had come after the loosehead had made a bullocking run off a Blairhorn pass.  The Boff’s conversion gave the Embramen a lead they would not surrender.  And it was game over on 64 minutes.  The King saw that there was acres of space on the left wing and slung a long pass to replacement full back van der Walt.  ‘Piet’ found The Boff, who still had work to do but did it well to cross for his second try, converted by himself.  29-19 Edinburgh and it was difficult o see Bath coming back.

 

Edinburgh turned the knife with two final scores.  Firstly, on 72 minutes, Lang’s kick from his own half secured a 50-22, then Bennett crossed after forcing his way through plenty of traffic.  Then the icing on the cake on 80 minutes.  Short-handed Edinburgh, following Cammy Hutchison’s carding for a high tackle, reached the Bath 22.  Boyle, running an excellent line, burst through a gap and sprinted over virtually untouched for his try to leave the final score 41-19 Edinburgh. European rugby returns to the back pitches next month.