A sparkling second-half display from Perpignan downed a determined Edinburgh side at Stade Aime Giral in the Heineken Cup on Sunday.
The hosts had trailed 7-3 at half-time following a surreal opening forty minutes punctuated by their lethargy and unforced errors, but a blistering comeback, led by replacement Wandile Mjekevu, saw them pull away after the break.
The bizarre first period began with Welsh fly-half James Hook watching his penalty attempt sail almost directly over the right-hand upright. With both touch judges keeping their flags by their sides, referee Marius Mitrea consulted the TMO, who awarded the goal after several replays.
Those odd opening minutes rather set the tone for the first-half, with Perpignan unable to build momentum and pressure in attack thanks to a string of mistakes and handling errors.
Winger Watisoni Votu, along with many in the home backline, seemed lacklustre and sluggish with ball in hand, running with little purpose, and spilling the ball with alarming regularity. Questions were raised over the kick-off timing, with some attributing a lunchtime start to the French side’s lack of verve.
This, coupled with excellent defensive work from Edinburgh’s back-row saw the visitors gain a foothold in the game early on. Roddy Grant in particular, was excellent at the breakdown, and made more tackles (eleven) than any other player.
In attack, too, the capital outfit looked purposeful and direct in contrast to their hosts. Centre Nick de Luca enjoyed an impressive showing with ball in hand, and continued to trouble the Perpignan defence even after the game as a contest was over.
This was all the more notable given that Edinburgh were shorn of two of their most influential and high-calibre players in David Denton and Matt Scott. And it was Scott’s replacement, newly-signed Argentine centre Joaquin Dominguez who almost finished off a nice blindside move in the corner with five minutes played, but for a foot in touch.
After more imprecision from the Top14 side stunted their attack, Edinburgh did cross the line. With two minutes to go to the interval, the visitors showed excellent hands and running lines down the left-hand-side. De Luca, Dominguez and Jack Cuthbert were involved heavily, before the prolific Tim Visser burst over as he did last week against Munster.
Laidlaw added the conversion, and the first-half rather predictably ended in a Perpignan knock-on. The opening period both stunned and angered the home crowd, and the whistles, jeers and cries of derision rang out as half-time arrived with the visitors in the lead.
It was, however, an altogether different home side that emerged from the changing rooms after the break. With Visser offering little pressure with his chasing of a Laidlaw box kick, Mjekevu gathered and set off downfield.
The South African thrives from broken play, and cantered through a fragmented Edinburgh defensive line. Though he was tackled by Cuthbert, the ball was recycled, and the hosts pinned the Scots back with dynamic and powerful carrying.
The ball was spread to the left, and the pressure told, as full-back Joffrey Michel burst over the line to put Perpignan back in front. Hook converted, and the resurgence was well underway.
Just moments later, the French side tore through Edinburgh from deep – the precision, handling and direct support lines so lacking in the first-half suddenly came to the fore, and in emphatic style.
Substitute hooker Romain Terrain was excellent in the loose all game after his early introduction, and he carried brilliantly as Perpignan burst into the visitors’ 22. Loosehead prop Sona Taumalolo was also busy around the field, and he sucked in several defenders metres from the try-line before releasing a delightful one-handed offload. Once more, the ball was brought swiftly to the left, and this time, Mjekevu cut back against the grain, through the gap in the stretched Edinburgh defence, and round under the posts for another five-pointer.
With Hook’s conversion taking the gap to ten points, it was vital that the Pro12 side scored next. Unfortunately for Alan Solomons’ men, they couldn’t break through what now was determined Perpignan resistance.
Second-row Romain Taofifenua made way for returning Welsh international Luke Charteris with twenty minutes to play after a powerful showing, and shortly after, Perpignan had their third score.
When Tim Visser’s touch-finder from just inside his own half bounced into touch-in-goal, the hosts’ attacked from the scrum, forcing Edinburgh back into their own 22. The Scots looked shell-shocked by the sudden and vigorous Perpignan revival, and after a Cuthbert fumble, faced a lineout ten metres from their line.
The Frenchmen advanced once more, and after a loose pass was tapped back from Laidlaw, the ball was gathered by industrious flanker Justin Purll, who crashed over to put the result beyond doubt.
Hook maintained his perfect record from the tee, and the hosts were set to go all-out for the fourth try and subsequent bonus point.
It came with seventeen minutes left to play, and it was a wonderful long-rage effort. Votu, a completely different player in the second-half, took a cross-kick from Hook in his own 22. Cutting inside a poor attempted tackle from Dominguez, he fed Mjekevu who had looped around outside his team-mate with a beautiful reverse pass. The substitute needed no further invitation, and went the distance from some seventy-five metres to secure that crucial bonus point.
Edinburgh continued to battle hard in the closing stages, and were rewarded when back-row Cornell du Preez powered over for his first try for the club. Laidlaw converted, and despite efforts in the dying minutes to restore further respectability to the scoreline, the home defence held firm. More positives for Edinburgh after last week’s victory, then, particularly in attack. But Solomons and defence coach Omar Mouneimne will be frustrated with their side’s missed tackles, and failure to weather the Perpignan storm.