A late withdrawal during the warm-up by standoff Simon Hickey threw Edinburgh’s preparations into a bit of a panic, but you wouldn’t have known it by the calmly assured manner that Jaco Van der Walt displayed in the first half of this physical encounter at BT Murrayfield.
Connacht came with a freewheeling reputation but it was Edinburgh who had most of the chances in the opening phases, the best of them when Matt Scott came within a few metres of a try following a Van der Walt break.
Now a team that backs themselves physically close in, early penalties that were perhaps at the edge of kicking range were sent to the corner rather than for three points.
Edinburgh didn’t get much return from those gambles though, as Connacht’s defence was pretty miserly although often on the wrong side of referee Ian Davies (and the ruck). But similarly, handling errors in possession were undoing the positive efforts of the hosts.
Matt Scott impressed with a range of kicks, dinks and passes that betrayed his origins as a 10 but the closest Edinburgh came to a try was when Hamish Watson was tackled just short of the line following a scything Blair Kinghorn break. From the ruck that ensued, skipper Jarrod Butler slapped at the ball but mostly hooked Henry Pyrgos’s arm as the scrum-half looked to spin it wide, a move that saw the Connacht openside receive a yellow card. Edinburgh opted for the scrum under the posts and with another penalty coming shortly thereafter, the ball made it left to Duhan Van Der Merwe who found space to get over in the corner.
A try, and justly deserved.
Unbowed with a man in the bin, Connacht put some strong carries together and worked their way deep into the Edinburgh 22 for their first real attack, until Hamish Watson relieved the pressure with a superb turnover clamped over the ball.
With his pack under pressure in the scrum, Connacht coach Andy Friend substituted young loosehead Conan O’Donnell after just 36 minutes to see if someone else could make a dent in WP Nel – now Willem, sans scrum cap – and under massive pressure the visitors duly came up with a big scrum by way of response and cleared the pressure themselves, but the scrums were to continue.
Not strictly entertaining, it was still an engrossing physical battle in both tight and loose, and Connacht looked like they might have done just enough to keep the scoreline as it was, until WP Nel got his own back and Ian Davies whistled up a scrum penalty duly kicked by the impressive Van der Walt.
Half-time: Edinburgh 10-0 Connacht
With more of the same in the opening exchanges of the second half – kicking, tackling and scrums – it wasn’t long before Connacht called for the cavalry in the shape of Bundee Aki and suddenly other players like Matt Healy sprung into life. As both sides tired, the broken field runners started to find holes for both sides.
Blair Kinghorn and Duhan Van Der Merwe contrived to make a hash of a clear two-on-one after patient forward play by their excellent pack – led by Stuart McInally – but the forwards got them out of Cockerill’s bad books moments later with 9-10 man maul. Pierre Schoeman came up with the ball after the men in navy rumbled over the line.
That was their last real scoring chance, but Connacht had some ideas of their own. Niyi Adeolokun’s try was perhaps against the run of territory and possession (and certainly the penalty count) but it put the visitors right back into contention in the last 20 minutes against a team that had lost their last two matches at the death.
More than a few Edinburgh fans would have been chewing fingernails, but toughing this one out as they did will perhaps put a slight gloss on a game that didn’t deliver on the promise of the first half.
The last fifteen minutes were entertaining, in a scrambly sort of way and as they tired, Edinburgh’s discipline started to falter too. The gap in penalty counts was still enough for Cockerill to blast the league’s organisers for failing to police the officiating standards afterwards; he has previous in that regard but it doesn’t make it any less true.
Connacht fans would probably argue they were over-penalised, while Edinburgh may have felt they weren’t penalised enough. As it was, Connacht took the final points of the game for a losing bonus that they probably deserved for their efforts, before Edinburgh ran the clock down to take their first win.
There will be plenty to work on ahead of the Leinster game next week.
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU)
SRBlog Man of the Match: Most of the pack were very good, including the tireless Stuart McInally. Luke Hamilton made a good fist of the first half and Hamish Watson might have just had a kid, but he’s still Hamish Watson! But for me Jamie Ritchie has picked up right where he left off last season, and was one of the few who shouldn’t bear responsibility for the second half slump. Alongside Blair Kinghorn, he kept battling all night.