It’s been a strange few days for this Edinburgh supporter. Prior to this match my confidence was intact. It could be measured in microns but still it was there (note: that I used the micron as my chosen unit of thickness. That’s because a macron is a unit used to measure tightness).
The noises coming out of Murrayfield were positive with words like accuracy, discipline and winning mind set being bandied about.
To counter that optimism there were a few niggling doubts. The Kingspan is a hard place to go and win especially against an Ulster side buoyed by an opening weekend win against Scarlets – an injury ravaged Scarlets yes, but a win nevertheless. Dan McFarland is held in high esteem by most Scottish rugby fans and we all expect him to improve Ulster. Then there is the elephant in the room, last week’s huge amount of handling errors.
Was that just start of the season rustiness or is the weight of expectation, well, weighing heavily on this Edinburgh team and leading to uncharacteristic mistakes?
Let’s take a look through the round window and find out.
Edinburgh had started slowly against Ospreys last week but against Ulster they were on it from the first whistle. A double tackle by Tom Brown and Jamie Ritchie forced Ulster Winger Craig Gilroy into touch and a couple of turnovers by aforementioned Ritchie and Luke Hamilton allied to their stout defence seemed to bode well for the rest of the match.
By the 9th minute the boot of Hickey had Edinburgh 6-0 ahead through two penalties. Then just shy of 15 minutes a good offload by Bill Mata to Tom Brown set Edinburgh’s backs moving. A good run by Bennett into Ulster’s 22, a ruck, and another smashing offload by Jamie Ritchie set Stuart Mcinally towards the line before he was only just halted by desperate Ulster defending. The ball was eventually recycled by Pyrgos who threw a long pass to Tom Brown on the left wing to score unopposed. Hickey kicked the conversion to make it Ulster 0 Edinburgh 13.
Around the 19 minute point Mark Bennett sustained a hamstring injury at a ruck inside Edinburgh’s 22 and was replaced by Jimmy Johnstone. After a lengthy delay for that injury, Ulster kicked a penalty through the boot of John Cooney but then infringed from the restart and Hickey restored Edinburgh’s momentum and drew the margin between the teams out again.
Another Cooney penalty subsequently made it Ulster 6, Edinburgh 16 and the score was to remain like that until half time despite some sustained Ulster pressure and a TMO intervention when they thought they had scored in the corner through Jordi Murphy.
Half-time: Ulster 6-16 Edinburgh
There was a significant blow for Edinburgh at half-time when the hugely impressive Bill Mata – who had made 17 carries for Edinburgh in the first half, which was more than any other Edinburgh player did in the whole game – failed to re-appear for the remainder of the game having succumbed to an arm injury.
Despite that setback, it was Edinburgh who got the next score. Under pressure from Ulster in their own half Henry Pyrgos forced a turnover. Jimmy Johnstone released Blair Kinghorn into Ulster’s half before he returned the favour for Johnstone to score under the posts. Hickey kicked the conversion. At 6-23 Edinburgh had a commanding lead.
Ulster then turned up the gas.
A lineout on Edinburgh’s 22 led to a great break by John Cooney and a penalty which Henry Speight took quickly. The ball was recycled through one phase before a gap appeared for fullback Will Addison to run through and score. After a TMO check for potential obstruction, the try was given and Cooney kicked the conversion.
Shortly after that Hickey was on the mark with another penalty for Edinburgh but tries from Cooney and a full-length effort from Craig Gilroy both of which were converted by Cooney finally gave Ulster the lead in the game at the 69th minute mark and SUFTUM rang out from the crowd for the first time.
There was a moment of controversy in the 75th minute as Edinburgh set a maul after a lineout on the Ulster 22. They looked in control of it as referee Stuart Berry called out “that’s once”. Berry then said “use it now” as the maul began to move forward. Sean Kennedy, only moments on the field expecting maybe a call of “that’s twice” failed to heed Berry’s warning and then looked bemused as the official awarded a scrum to Ulster. Grant Gilchrist in his role as captain questioned the decision. Berry’s explanation was not convincing and didn’t tally with his actions. There was some further backchat and the scrum became a penalty.
Ulster kicked it clear but from the subsequent lineout, they fumbled the ball and Edinburgh had a scrum put in roughly 40 metres out. It collapsed once with Edinburgh going forward and they might have had the penalty at that point but a reset was called. On the second occasion, Cooney tackled Kennedy without the ball and Hickey kicked the penalty to make it Ulster 27 Edinburgh 29.
Ulster kicked off with the clock at 79:33 and rashly Edinburgh gifted them the ball. Sensing one last late opportunity Ulster started playing the phases looking for a penalty, which they duly got, when Crosbie and Mackenzie double-tackled substitute Wiehaan Herbst. Crosbie stripped him of the ball on the way down but Berry adjudged, harshly in my opinion, that the tackle had been complete and penalised Crosbie for not releasing.
Cooney, who had been imperious throughout, kicked the penalty to win the game for Ulster.
It was hugely improved performance in every department from Edinburgh over last week’s showing but unfortunately the opposition were also better and despite their efforts, they just couldn’t kill Ulster off. Injuries played a part, Bennett going off in the first half although not crucial at that stage left them light in terms of making replacements later and then losing Mata, who had been brilliant in the first half and Pyrgos when it got down to the wire was costly and disruptive.
Game management also cost Edinburgh. Hickey could have used the full minute for his last penalty to run down the clock. Failing to secure the restart thereafter was criminal.
Looking at the match stats alone would say that Ulster deserved the win. They had more possession, more territory, more tries, more offloads, more passes, and won more rucks but once again Edinburgh were there at the finish fighting for the win. The fact they didn’t get it, and in this fashion, just feels bad.
To quote Capt Darling from Blackadder, “I put a note in my diary today, it simply says: bugger”.
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
SRBlog Man of the Match: Goes to Jamie Ritchie. He was celebrating his 50th Edinburgh cap and was a menace the entire match. No one in the Edinburgh team made more tackles than him and only Bill Mata made more runs. His performance will no doubt give Cockerill some headaches come selection time even when everyone is fit.
UPDATE: Richard Cockerill reported in the post match press conference that Bennett may have suffered an injury to the upper part of his hamstring (similar to the one that Tom Brown has only just come back from) and could be out until the new year. We’re still waiting on official medical confirmation.