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Edinburgh:10 (3) Ulster: 16 (13)

Well, that was frustrating.


First, though, the good bits.  Although the Embramen lost their unbeaten home record at the DAM Health Stadium against visiting Ulster last night, the losing bonus point they secured guarantees them playoff rugby.  They currently sit in eighth position, six points ahead of the Scarlets with only one match yet to play.  Their final regular season match, against Glasgow in the big hoose next door, will decide whether they can finish any higher.  Should they win, they will also be assured of Champions Cup rugby next season by securing the coveted Scottish/Italian Shield.  I think.


All ifs, buts and what might have beens, but it ain’t over yet.  Not least as they have a home tie against Wasps that might see them into the Challenge Cup semi-finals.  Meanwhile, going to Ireland or South Africa for the URC playoffs is something they could have done without, but they have shown that they can win on the road in this competition.  One hopes they will give it their best shot.


The first sell out match at Minifield generated a raucous atmosphere.  Ulster always bring a big support, all of whom are not shy about letting locals know they are in attendance.  But it was the Embra Ultras, egged on by Emiliano ‘The Boff’ Boffelli, who raised the temporary roofs around the stadium as the match headed into its denouement, with the Gunners hammering away at the Ulster line in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to nick a late win.  The intensity of noise and emotion was something I have never heard at an Edinburgh match – other than the 1872 and home knock out matches - in more years than I care to mention of following these guys.  Maybe also the Jacobsen-inspired 48-47 Euro victory over Racing Metro a decade ago, now you mention it…  But last night’s experience demonstrated that those who said the club needed a smaller ground in order to generate an atmosphere were right.  Douglas Struth and the back-room team at the club have done a fantastic job in getting Edinburgh Rugby to this stage.  Now it’s time to make that sort of thing routine.


And, as Head Coach Mike ‘Blade’ Blair said afterwards, “I spoke at the end about how proud I was of the second-half comeback and we obviously got really close to stealing it at the end there.  I thought we were dangerous in attack and created opportunities that on another day we'd have taken.” 


That’s where the frustration starts, though.  Whether it was returning back row hit man Luke ‘Bing’ Crosbie taking the ball into contact early in the match, when simply committing the last defender would have put Damien Hoyland over for the opening try, or the knock-on in a close-in drive on the Ulster line that ended the match, poor execution under pressure cost the Gunners a narrow win.  And indiscipline that led to a massive penalty count against them in the first half came a close second.  It’s a genuine surprise to see that Ulster’s 13 penalties conceded was only one less than Edinburgh’s 14 over the piece.  That’s particularly so when one remembers that Ulster’s opener, notched by yet another impressive winger to wear the white jersey in Robert Baloucoune, came after the Embramen had coughed up four – count ‘em – entirely avoidable penalties in a row.  Their offences enabled Ulster to kick their way from their own 22 to the Edinburgh 22, from where they conjured the score.  There is only one word for all that, and that word is ‘frustrating’.


I am old enough to remember being immensely irritated by Neil Doak, when he turned out at half-back for Ulster back in the day.  His son has taken up where the old boy left off and Nathan, I thought, had a fine game, both in delivering quick ball from the breakdown and in goal kicking so steady that I wondered at times whether it was actually John Cooney in the 9 jersey.  And it was the breakdown where this match was won – as so many are.  Baloucoune’s try apart, Ulster always looked the most likely to score in the first period, when they had the wind.  The Gunners’ defence had them largely under control, but they nonetheless kept the scoreboard ticking over with what proved to be three crucial Doak penalty goals.  On the other side of the ball, the visitors managed to slow Edinburgh ball just enough such that, while there were glimpses of this season’s emerging Blairhorn as The King surged through gaps here and put his support runners through gaps there, that key final pass didn’t quite stick.  Much of the credit for that has to go to a suffocating Ulster defence.  Particularly as they dogged out the win despite having to manage two yellow cards, one in each half, and even managed to score themselves during the first power play.


It didn’t help that James Lang retired very early with a leg injury, just after having made a magnificent break.  The unfortunate Stuart ‘Rambo’ McInally had only just returned from passing an HIA following a yellow card-worthy hit by Ulster openside Timoney when he, too, suffered a leg injury and had to retire during a very physical opening phase.  This also accounted for Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey.  Even Big Dave Cherry © suffered an alarming looking arm injury in the second half.  But Big Dave being Big Dave, he just had unfeasibly copious amounts of strapping applied to his arm and carried on world classing as normal.


The Sweet Prince, Chris Dean, had some great touches after coming on as an early replacement for Lang, while the Gunners’ pack competed well in set piece.  But they really struggled to get to the breakdown to clean out Ulster’s jackalers.  In the end, Edinburgh had 69% territory, 62% possession and forced Ulster to make 180 tackles.  But the quality of Ulster’s work in defence – exemplified by their successful late goal-line stand – won this match for them.


The Boff’s penalty on the stroke of half time was an important one, as it at least narrowed the gap at the break to 13-3 Ulster.  And the Gunners did stop the rot in the second period, outscoring the visitors 7-3 and threatening to take the victory with a late surge after Mark ‘Benzo’ Bennett had given them hope with his touchdown.  It was a beauty from a three-quarter who seems to be in the form of his life at the moment.  He chipped the onrushing defence smartly and gathered to cross for a fine try.  Quite why the TMO had to be asked whether he had been offside from his own kick remains a bit of a mystery.



But it was not enough in the end and Ulster ran out, if we’re being entirely honest about it, deserved winners.