It was initially thought that this match would be the battle of the benches. Zebre, however had almost all of their international players released back to them by Italy coach Conor O’Shea and as a result their team only showed two changes from the side that demolished Bristol in the Challenge Cup a few short days ago.
In contrast the Edinburgh team was much changed from their heroic win against Toulon. That said if you looked at the names in the starting XV individually only Callum Hunter-Hill and Jamie Hodgson in the second row would probably jump out as being surprises.
The rest? Only club centurion Ross Ford and up and coming back-rower Luke Crosbie hadn’t started a game for Edinburgh this season. The inclusion of either of those wasn’t a cause for concern.
So what went wrong?
In the first half, you’d be hard pressed to think anything at all. Edinburgh had all the possession and territory. At half-time the only real criticism was that they hadn’t really taken full advantage of such dominance but they were looking set for a win.
A single try on the 17 minute mark as a result of a nice inside step by Chris Dean who then offloaded to the impressive Darcy Graham to score just to the left of the sticks along with a conversion, and a couple of Hickey penalties was all that Edinburgh could muster whilst seemingly still in total charge of the game.
Zebre’s only points from the half came from a penalty by standoff Carlo Canna.
Half-time: Zebre 3-13 Edinburgh
In the run-up to Halloween week, the second half was quite fittingly a horror show from Edinburgh, who would score just 3 further points of their own.
Right from the kick-off they put themselves under pressure. The usually effective Bill Mata failed to collect the ball and handed possession back to the hosts. A few phases later Zebre second row David Sisi took advantage of some confusion and slack tackling around the breakdown to run through almost unopposed to score. Carlo Canna kicked the conversion to breathe life into the Zebre game and make it Zebre 10, Edinburgh 13.
The two sides then exchanged penalties fairly quickly through Hickey and Canna respectively before the next action gave Zebre a lead they were never to surrender.
A seemingly innocuous up and under from Canna was allowed to bounce by Edinburgh full-back Dougie Fife and was snapped up by winger Di Giuglio who then cantered under the posts unopposed. The try was converted by Canna.
The game was all but over on 73 minutes as Edinburgh, devoid of ideas and starved of possession in the second half, tried to force it a little too much. Hickey handed an interception to Canna who ran in from 40 yards and then converted his own score.
Zebre completed the rout and added a try bonus point with the clock in the red. They won the ball at a scrappy lineout within the Edinburgh 22. Captain Tomasso Castello broke up the short side and scored in the corner. Carlo Canna finished the night with 100% from the tee and cap a comeback they’ll be talking about in Italy for a while.
So that was how it fell apart. But why did it fall apart?
The rot probably set in before half-time. With a chance to make it 16-0 with 35 minutes on the clock, the otherwise dependable Hickey missed a straightforward penalty. Zebre then managed t0 kick their own penalty in the remaining minutes and instead of being two scores clear there was only 10 points in it at half-time and the hosts were within touching distance.
The players then failed to deliver in the second half. They had a decent if not spectacular platform to work from, but somehow all the energy they had played with during the first half seemed to belong to Zebre in the second period. Mental switch off perhaps? Zebre boosted by still being in it on the scoreboard despite being hammered in the first half? Probably a combination of the two but the turnaround in attitudes was spectacular.
The physicality that Edinburgh brought to the game against Toulon seemed absent throughout. Darcy Graham did what he could on the few occasions the ball reached him, but the Edinburgh back line, his try apart, looked empty of invention. Duhan Van Der Merwe was a spectator throughout. He was passed to once in the entire match.
As decent as Edinburgh’s starting XV was their bench showed just how deep they had to dig to fill it. Only Rory Sutherland and Sean Kennedy could boast of appearances in double figures so it was clear that if cavalry were required, few experienced warriors would be found there.
Between them the Italian RFU and Conor O’Shea played a blinder. It may cost Italy next week in Chicago but clearly knowing that Edinburgh would be devoid of anyone due to start against Wales for Scotland they gambled by releasing all their Zebre contingent. Their roll of the dice paid off in bonus points, knowing that long term improvement of Italian PRO14 fortunes is far more important than a fairly meaningless game in the US. Let’s be clear, this was the kind of trade-off that comes from knowing, with almost certainty, that you’ll lose one game anyway so why not be pragmatic. I take my hat off to them.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has different priorities than O’Shea going into this autumn series and I can’t blame him for wanting to wrap the Edinburgh section of his match day 23 in cotton wool. Their absence against Zebre however, whilst retained for the game against Wales, which is both outside the International window and whilst the Pro14 is ongoing, was significant and costly for Edinburgh.
A similar Edinburgh squad will have to front up against Scarlets next week at BT Murrayfield against an equally shorn Scarlets side (Blade Thomson may feature though!). The difference is dirt-trackers will be off the back of an encouraging win against Kings down in Port Elizabeth. There will be some harsh words and hard yards in training this week of that I have no doubt.
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)
SRBlog Man of the Match: The one shining light on an otherwise dismal evening was the continued rise of Darcy Graham so he gets the award this week. He scored Edinburgh’s only try and was dangerous when the few opportunities he was afforded came his way.