In his programme notes, Edinburgh Coach, Michael Bradley, was keen to point out the size of the challenge facing Edinburgh in tonight’s game against the Scarlets. Off the back of a losing streak stretching back eight league games and with the Heineken Cup looming large, this game surely had ‘distracted defeat’ written all over it.
But somehow Edinburgh edged a creditable 26-23 win with a late penalty from Greig Laidlaw sealing the much needed victory. It was, at times, a game that could have slipped away from the Murrayfield men. Particularly during a fraught period at the start of the second half where they were guilty of some ‘over-attacking’. This appeared to be due mainly to the pressure Edinburgh put on themselves to capitalise on the Scarlets being reduced to 13 men.
With all the internationals back for both sides it was guaranteed to at least be a full-blooded occasion. The Scarlets fans had travelled in numbers and were in good voice, keen to support their team’s push for a playoff place.
So, as the last of the unseasonal sun faded off the top lip of the South Stand the game kicked off into an increasingly chilly evening air. An early penalty for offside saw Rhys Priestland grab first blood for the Welsh. Greig Laidlaw then swiftly replied after the Scarlets were penalised for holding on at the breakdown and it was three all within the opening five minutes.
Prior to the game, the match-up between Tim Visser and George North had looked like the key collision and the opening exchanges didn’t disappoint. North was frequently coming in off his wing in search of work whilst Visser nearly capitalised on a break by Denton in the midfield but his 20 metre hoof up the left was called back for a forward pass.
This unforced error was a far from an isolated incident as the opening quarter of the match saw regular blunders from both teams. Laidlaw then nudged another penalty following an infringement to give Edinburgh the lead.
Further indiscipline from the Welsh led to an Edinburgh line out on their 5 metre line. Secured and shipped inside by Edinburgh, Ross Rennie then put in one of his trademark off-loads for the bullocking David Denton to power, bludgeon and stretch his way over for a try which Laidlaw duly converted.
The Scarlets responded with the twin tactics of smashing it up with pod-carrying forwards in the midfield and some high balls over the top from the huge boot of Priestland. However, they were getting little change from the fiercely organised Edinburgh defence or the safe hands of Tom Brown at fullback.
Edinburgh were now dominating the set-pieces and looking good to build on their lead. The Scarlets however, kept in touch with another penalty from Priestland. Edinburgh responded by again turning to the set piece but several promising field positions were squandered by handling errors.
Approaching half-time and some fiddling with the ball on the deck saw Scarlets tighthead, Deacon Manu, yellow-carded, but a squint throw in the resulting line-out saw Edinburgh once again fail to build on their lead.
Forced to do things the hard way Edinburgh turned the Welshmen over in their own 22 before a rash attempt at an interception saw Matthew Rees also yellow-carded for the Scarlets. Sensibly Edinburgh took the scrum option and were, somewhat inevitably, awarded a penalty try after the scrum creaked and then eventually collapsed. Laidlaw slotted the extras and Edinburgh went in to the changing room with a handsome and well deserved 20-6 lead.
Down to thirteen men, the Scarlets faced an onslaught from the men in black in the opening salvos of the second half. Nick De Luca nearly punished them with a burst through the middle but he knocked on. The Welshmen reverted to the survival tactic of up-and-unders and successfully saw out their sin-binning without conceding any further points.
In fact, failure to release on the deck by Sean Cox gave Priestland his third successful penalty and with full complement back on the pitch they grew more and more confident. This new found belief was shortly converted into points as Andy Fenby broke down the left wing to score a soft try, converted by Priestland.
Laidlaw steadied the ship with a penalty but it was the Scarlets who were now looking the more dangerous of the two teams. Back up the field and a panicked piece of defence by De Luca led to a 5m scrum for the Welsh but a scrummaging masterclass from the Edinburgh pack turned the ball over and Mike Blair cleared the lines.
Substitute Stephen Jones came on in time miss a vital penalty for the Scarlets and the momentum seemed to be shifting back towards the men from Murrayfield. There is however, always a twist in the tail with Edinburgh and at the next breakdown Rennie was spuriously yellow carded for a dangerous tackle and the Scarlets immediately capitalised with a try through the middle from Jon Davies. This time Jones wasn’t so charitable and nailed the conversion to draw the scores level.
It was then Edinburgh’s turn to ramp up the effort and some patient build-up work led them incrementally down into opposition territory where a penalty from Laidlaw was the eventual reward. The mature approach continued to serve them well and some borderline time wasting saw them through to Rennie’s re-instatement with almost exactly 5 minutes to go.
A promising move by the Scarlets eventually broke down with a careless knock on and Edinburgh kicked downfield from the resulting scrum. Back came the Welshmen and once again they spurned an overlap with an unforced error. Having snuffed out the last attack Edinburgh ran down the clock for a well needed league victory.
If the adage about building a ‘winning mentality’ is as valid as sports psychologists would lead you to believe, then Edinburgh have done themselves a massive favour ahead of the game against Toulouse.
RaboDirect PRO 12 man of the match: David Denton