Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Edinburgh Rugby: Season 2018-2019 review

Jaco Van Der Walt
Jaco van der Walt shouts instructions - pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

After the relative successes of season 2017-2018, Edinburgh embarked on the New Year with an air of confidence. A confidence that was only boosted in pre-season by a good win v Newcastle (23-13) and a narrow but creditable loss to Bath (10-12).

That confidence was dealt a blow or rather two blows in the opening weekends of the PRO14 by losses firstly away to Ospreys and then in Belfast to Ulster. Edinburgh played below par in both games and probably didn’t deserve to win either. That said – and this won’t be the last time I mention this – some poor officiating from John Lacey and Stuart Berry respectively probably cost Edinburgh points as much as their own poor play did.

Edinburgh’s first win of the season came a week later at home v Connacht. It was a hard fought victory in the end and not a great spectacle but it got the ball rolling.

Another away game at reigning champions Leinster followed and although Edinburgh put a huge effort into it Leinster were just too good and were easy winners.

Two home wins followed v Benetton and Cheetahs. The former was one that Edinburgh hung on to by the skin of their teeth as Benetton scored a late try to bring the scores within one point. They missed the conversion which would have won them the game.

These two wins were to be the start of an unbeaten home run that continued until February 2019.

The Champions Cup was next up and with almost no one giving Edinburgh a chance in hell of qualifying from their group they headed to Montpellier with nothing to lose. In the end another game that they “coulda shoulda” won got away from them.  In the 70th minute what really should have been the decisive score went astray as Simon Berghan and Magnus Bradbury were adjudged to have crossed just before Bradbury touched the ball down. The try, just to the left of the posts, was disallowed.

A loss it was then but it kind of woke Edinburgh up as they realised: hang on a minute, we can do something here.

A week later they did do something by hitting European giants Toulon for 40 points at BT Murrayfield.

The autumn internationals commenced shortly after that and Edinburgh travelled to Italy. Their abysmal away record this season continued as they fell to a Zebre side that still had all their Italian Internationals in play. The team that Edinburgh sent, however, should have been good enough to take something from the game but merely left with a 16-34 hiding.

They redeemed themselves the week after with a cracking win v Scarlets at home which saw Scotland hopeful Blade Thomson sustain a concussion injury he has only just recovered from.

Another two international-depleted losses on the road followed to Dragons and Munster respectively and rounded off a mixed November. December however, to use a rather tired pun, was a cracker.

First off came back to back wins against Newcastle in the Champions Cup and left Edinburgh sitting pretty at the top of Group F, confounding the rugby ‘experts’.  The first two legs of the 1872 cup followed and Edinburgh ensured that the much-debated third leg, at Scotstoun, in April was to be a dead rubber at least in respect of bragging rights over the silverware. Both of the first two legs were won in quite straightforward fashion.

The first leg at BT Murrayfield was memorable in particular for the two intercepted tries that Duhan Van der Merwe ran in almost the full length of the field.

January started brilliantly before it finished in miserable circumstances in the Port Elizabeth heat.

A cracking try by Cammy Fenton which was made by Charlie Shiel’s footwork rounded off a 38-0 home win against Kings in the PRO14 at the start of the month and then Edinburgh were back on Champions Cup duty against Toulon in France.

Bill Mata
Bill Mata breaks loose for Edinburgh – pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

The French side started at a rate of knots and Edinburgh found themselves 7-0 down after only two minutes. They re-grouped though and scored 3 top notch tries including a contender for try of the tournament which had its origins in the power and offloading skills of Bill Mata and was finished by the pace of James Johnstone.

That win was followed up by a shootout at BT Murrayfield with Vern Cotter’s Montpellier for qualification for the quarter finals.

It was nervy affair and Edinburgh fans may have feared the worst when Hamish Watson was injured early on.  When the half-time whistle blew the home side had a narrow two point lead with Montpellier scoring the only try of the first half.

Edinburgh’s superior fitness and desire won the day and a second half converted try from one of the emerging stars of Scottish rugby, Darcy Graham, meant Edinburgh were through to the knockout stages of the Champions Cup for the first time since 2011.

If that was the highlight of the season so far then the next game reminded supporters of the Jekyll & Hyde nature of this Edinburgh side.

Aided by ineffectual refereeing from Dan Jones, their own ineptitude and the lack of many of their front line players, (again on Six Nations duty), Edinburgh fell 25-21 to the Kings on South African soil. Two tries from Kings in the last five minutes overturned an 8 point Edinburgh lead.

Emphasising the tight nature of Conference B, Edinburgh’s win the following week v Dragons saw them climb up to second place before succumbing to Cardiff and Benetton in the following fixtures saw them roll back down to fifth.

After that calamitous loss to Benetton, Edinburgh got back on the horse by beating Leinster 28-11 at BT Murrayfield. This match not only relit the teams all-but-extinguished PRO14 aspirations but saw the long-awaited return of John Barclay from knee ligament injury hell.  He had a cracking debut for Edinburgh and was named the official Man of The Match although here at the Scottish Rugby Blog we gave the award to WP Nel.

Hopes high, the following week we welcomed Munster to Edinburgh in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. Apart from Blair Kinghorn and Luke Hamilton, Richard Cockerill had a full complement of players to pick from. On a glorious afternoon in the Edinburgh sunshine, the team fell just short to a Munster side that had been over this course many times before and were able to bring all their experience – both fair and foul – to win the game.

Darcy Graham
Darcy Graham in action during Edinburgh Rugby vs Munster in the European Rugby Champions Cup Quarter Final pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

That left us with just the PRO14 and a week later Edinburgh travelled to Parc Y Scarlets to take on a Welsh side who had lost there only once in the past 31 games. At half time in the match it looked like that impressive record was set to continue but Edinburgh turned it around and left the principality with all 5 points. So far so good.

Two games remained and were the Murrayfield men to taste knockout rugby again this season nothing but two wins would do. A bumper crowd of 7856 turned up for the first of these against an Ulster side that had just had a sore lesson from Glasgow but Edinburgh looked spent and never really got into the game. This time it was Ulster handing out the lessons.

As Edinburgh took to the field in Glasgow for the last game of the regular season they knew, thanks to an unlikely Dragons away win earlier in the day, that any victory against their 1872 rivals would be enough to ensure a Champions Cup play-off place. Unfortunately, too many of the team looked tired and they were given an education in efficient use of possession and territory by a Glasgow side in no mood to let slip their advantage at the top of Conference A. Glasgow rolled onwards to a home semi final, while Edinburgh were left with sore bodies and bruised egos and plenty to reflect on for next season.

Progress made?

Superficially it’s hard to argue that there has been any real progress.

Edinburgh finished 5th in conference B meaning no PRO14 playoffs or for that matter a Champions Cup play off. That’s worse than last year.

We did have Champions Cup success but the feelgood factor from that has to be tempered with the realisation that we won’t even be in that competition again until 2021 at the very earliest. Boom and bust then which is very much the Edinburgh of old.

When our international players were absent the mix of seasoned pros and callow youths we hoped would carry us through matches against the likes of Dragons and Kings just didn’t perform, unlike similar players do for say Munster or Glasgow.

Also, when the big win or bust matches came around we were found wanting. We were too easy to work out and if our all-out frontal assault tactics didn’t yield results then we didn’t seem capable of outflanking our opponents. This isn’t a player issue. We have good backs and but they just don’t get the ball often enough. When they do it’s mostly individual excellence that we remember (think Kinghorn, Graham or Jimmy Johnstone v Benetton away) as opposed to good teamwork or planned moves.

We don’t score enough mundane tries either. Actually, strike that we don’t score enough tries full stop: 79 tries in 27 games in all competitions this season – only Zebre and Dragons have scored less tries in the PRO14.

Towards the end of the season the accepted started Edinburgh fifteen started to look very jaded. This isn’t a huge surprise in hindsight.  Stuart McInally played in 26 of the 37 games available to him. Bill Mata 25 of 31. The much maligned Henry Pyrgos played in 24 out of 28 games for a total of 1778 minutes. That’s a massive 74 minutes per game.  Add in the fact that the way Edinburgh have played has usually meant 25-35 phases or more per try and you can see that fatigue was a significant factor in our collapse as we approached the finishing line.

John Barclay interviewed
John Barclay spent a lot of time in front of camera this season but not always in a playing capacity – pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

The responsibility for the style of play and the depth (quality) of the squad  has to lie with the coaching staff and as loathe as I am to say it the buck for that stops with Richard Cockerill, regardless of what we think about Duncan Hodge’s input on the attack front. We must evolve.

So we have to look deeper for tangible signs of progress then and it can probably be found in the much-improved attitude of the players. In the fact that despite what must have been interest from elsewhere, the much coveted Bill Mata and Hamish Watson have both signed contract extensions to stick around. It must also seen in the respect of the opposition who know that we are now capable of competing at the highest levels if perhaps we are still falling a little short in the really big games.

Our squad is getting stronger and we got good returns over the course of the season from guys like Pierre Schoeman who has quickly become a fan’s favourite off and on the field.  Unfortunately, we lost both Mark Bennett and Matt Scott for significant portions of the season but that allowed Chris Dean and Jimmy Johnstone to flourish when given scope to do so. The return of Scott and Bennett coincided with the long-awaited arrival of John Barclay for a 4 game cameo.

The continued rise of Jamie Ritchie in a hugely competitive back row and the emergence of the Prince of Hawick, Darcy Graham as a dangerous option at both wing and full back have been real highlights. Both have gone on to be a success with the national side.

Hamish Watson
Hamish Watson on the charge followed by James Johnstone – pic © Alastair Ross/Novantae Photography

Looking Forward

Season 2019-2020 is going to be strange.

Edinburgh will definitely be without Hamish Watson, Grant Gilchrist, Stuart McInally and probably around 8-9 others who will be on duty with Scotland in Japan. That’s not including Bill Mata who will be with Fiji until mid-October at the very earliest. Depending on Scottish progress in that tournament it could be more like the end of October before Cockers gets the spine of his team back.

On one hand that gives our fringe and youth players a chance to shine in the absence of the big cheeses. For example, it’s unlikely more than one of the centre group will travel to Japan. But and it’s a big but, the evidence from 2019-2020 is that Edinburgh’s wider squad isn’t quite up to the task.

With a glass-half-full attitude I’d like to think with the exposure they’ve had this year, youngsters such as Calum Hunter-Hill, George Taylor and Charlie Shiel along with the more experienced members of the squad not selected for international duty will keep the candle burning brightly until the stars return.

Some strengthening has already taken place. We have been joined by Jamie Bhatti, Mike Willemse, Eroni Sau, Kalione Nasoko, and Nick Haining who all signed for the club in March. We have also secured the services of Murray Douglas from Brumbies until the Super Rugby season resumes.

At the time of writing we also are waiting patiently to see who the “senior “scrum half is that Richard Cockerill said Edinburgh have signed, rumoured to be Nic Groom.

We were also hoping to be able to say hello to our new mini Murrayfield stadium, or “The Library” as I was hoping it could be named, but it was announced in April that we would be spending at least another year rattling around the main bowl  due to almost inevitable red tape delays with local officialdom.

Offsetting the arrivals Allan Dell has signed for London Irish and Nathan Fowles for Ealing Trailfinders. Sean Kennedy, Tom Brown and Luke Hamilton’s contracts were not renewed.

Ross Ford try
Ross Ford scores for Edinburgh. He got the ball down, honest – pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

Ross Ford left the club (for pastures unknown at this time) with 199 Edinburgh caps and 110 Scotland caps. He quietly and steadfastly represented the club for more than 10 years and even in this his final season, provided us with a standout moment as he chased back and caught Scarlets centre Kieran Fonotia with a textbook tackle to prevent him scoring in the corner in November. Thanks for your dedication and service Fordy.

We are also saying goodbye to Roddy Grant who is off to Ulster to continue his rise up the coaching ladder. Maybe we will see him in blue and burnt orange again in the years to come.

With prospective internationals away, our remaining squad (not accounting for Academy players) for the early season will be a bit like this:

  1. Schoeman, Sutherland, Bhatti, Marfo
  2. Cherry, Fenton, Willemse
  3. Ceccarelli, McCallum
  4.  Mckenzie,  Hodgson
  5.  Hunter Hill, Carmichael
  6. Luke Crosbie
  7.  Ritchie, Murray Douglas
  8. Miller, Haining
  9. Pyrgos, Shiel
  10. Van der Walt, Hickey, Baggott
  11. Van der Merwe, Sau
  12. Socino, Dean, Scott,
  13. Johnstone , Taylor, Bennett
  14. Hoyland, Nasoko
  15. Fife

Those in red have a chance of being with Scotland squad.

Even accounting for the delayed PRO14 start this squad will have 4 games in the PRO14 and possibly 2 in the Challenge Cup before the internationals start feeding back in and let’s not forget the 6 Nations will be just around the corner when they return from Japan.

Stuart McInally and Scotland chums will in all likelihood play in less than half of Edinburgh’s regular season matches so I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that the squad mentioned above is going to have to step up massively if we want this coming season to be a success.

“It’s the same for everyone” I hear you say. But it’s not, as I’ve previously highlighted. Only having two Pro sides in Scotland means that more of our players on average will be required by the National team than in a country that has four pro sides such as Ireland. Some teams will be totally unaffected, such as Kings and Cheetahs.


We bid goodbye to season 2018 -19 earlier than we might have hoped but with heads held high and the memories of good days versus Montpellier, Toulon and Newcastle to sustain us and bad days in Port Elizabeth and Newport among others to keep us grounded (as if such a thing was required as Edinburgh supporters).

2019-2020 could be pivotal. It will be disjointed but without the distractions of top-level European competition I sincerely hope that Edinburgh can make inroads towards PRO14 success. 

I’ll be watching however it pans out.

22 Responses

  1. Nice retrospective, Sandy. Hopefully Cockers can learn to trust his B squad more – and they give him reason to trust them – so that the first-choice players can get more rest and not capitulate in games they should win, e.g. against Ulster. Disappointing as it may seem, it’s worth remembering that (as you mention), if any one of several game-deciding decisions from the officials had gone the right way, Edinburgh would be playing for the 7th Champs Cup spot. I’m not saying they shouldn’t blame themselves (they should), but there’s a broader context. Fine margins and all that!

    It’ll be interesting to see how Cockers adapts next year, both in terms of squad rotation and strategy and tactics.

  2. I think the team has progressed nicely this season which has had alot of bad luck.

    The best performances of this season blow the best performances of last season out of the water, the amount of injuries/timing of those has affected out consistency though.

    I am hoping some of youngester really step up next season to provide that 2nd layer of potential 1st choice players so that Cockers can rotate.

    I also hope a big aspect of next seasons development is to give the players more freedom to express themselfs when its on & that this improves the skillset to get somewhat close to that of Glasgows.

    Young players i would like to see really step up next season:

    Lewis Carmichael
    Luke Crosbie
    Murray Mcallum
    Charlie Shiel
    Jack Blain ? ( Winger)
    Mark Bennet

  3. Great Article.

    Sorry to post something irrelevant but Dunbar looking pretty good for Newcastle atm.

  4. Schoeman, McInally, Nel, Toolis, Berghan, Barclay, Watson, Mata.

    Bhatti, Willemse, Berghan, McKenzie, Carmichael, Ritchie, Crosbie, Bradbury.

    Sutherland, Cherry, Ceccarelli, Hunter-Hill, Hodgson, Douglas, Miller, Haining.

    Two quality packs and a serviceable third but how many quality backlines?

  5. Speaking of refs unduly influencing a game, Owens just had a shocker for Benetton, costing them a justified semi-final (which, admittedly, they’d have lost…). In the second half in particular he penalised Benetton yet allowed Munster to get away with the exact same thing, e.g. obstructing the 9 when rolling away from a tackle – when Benetton do it Nige comments, “you put yourself there, you deal with the consequences”, when Munster do it he either ignores it or says, “no, you’ve trapped him”. You can’t have it both ways, Nigel.

    That said, if Benetton could kick a drop goal or catch critical passes it wouldn’t have been an issue! Benetton looked fantastic in attack and just displayed that very Scottish trait of failing to make the last pass stick.

    1. Also, I’d love Munster to make it to the final – Warriors would absolutely destroy that shower that ventured onto the pitch today.

    2. On referees….they’ve been like that forever, might as well complain that the ball’s a funny shape.

      Referee errors may be a valid “reason” for losing a game, but in the end it is the players’ responsibility to deal with it: avoid, mitigate, adapt…just another part of the game.

      I’d like to see Edinburgh get smarter in this respect.

      1. Alanyst while i agree with what you say in principle, the standard expected by the leagues clubs should be higher

        I dont know the stats but i would expect that out of the 4 major club leagues in the world ours has the highest error rate from referees & the most variants in terms of how the laws are applied.

        It is Edinburghs own fault they did not take all the chances, but that is part of the learning curve for this team which is only in its 2nd real year of development, compare that to Glasgows who i would say has been developing since Sean Lineen and its clear to see where this Edinburgh team are at.

      2. It is the uneven distribution of those errors that for me is the real problem. Irish teams in particular often appear seem to get a better rub of the green.

        Is this our paranoia or is it real? Both, I think.

      3. Neil and Ian have both articulated the issue better than me – our refs are generally worse and the distribution of errors is funky. Part of it is that Munster in particular are very good at cheating and conning the ref, and shameless about doing so. If Cummings had dived like Beirne did I would be mortified. As Cockers has said, you either emulate them to level the playing field or referees should wise-up. It’s hard to believe that they’re unaware of this.

      4. Spot on, FF. Especially when it comes to mocking Warriors fans for booing. Munster are a dirty, unlikable team, epitomised by the vastly overrated PoM. I’d take John Barclay over him every single time.

      5. Don’t normally chip in on Edinburgh chats, prefer just to read. But FF just nailed it with that comment – that mixture of ‘cheating and sanctimonious’ is exactly what winds me up about Irish and Welsh rugby in a way that even English, SA, NZ, Australian, French rugby does not.

        As to Edinburgh’s season, the fact this review is being done now, as admitted in the article, ultimately, says all you need to know.

      6. NRS – I’d argue the all blacks have been adept at the subtle art of cheating , and lead the way , the oirish have only emulated them to get to the top.

      7. Grant: true, but the Irish and Welsh generally play negative rugby, whereas the ABs don’t.

  6. Ruaridh Dawson, Alex Dunbar, Gary Graham, Guy Graham, John Hardie, Chris Harris and Jon Welsh have all just been relegated.

  7. If Pyrgos had stayed down (like Beirne) when dumped off the ball by Murray, the ref would surely have gone to the TMO and chalked off Earls’ first try. Munster won the quarter final by 4 points.

  8. One coaching issue for me is DVDM. I’m really not sure whether he is told to stay on his wing or whether he’s simply not looking for work. As one of Embra’s main threats, he’s pitifully underused.

    1. He’s got hands of stone and never looks to pass – I suspect that’s just the type of winger he is – a fast bosh merchant.

  9. Thoughts on Fraser Brown as captain against Edinburgh ? I reckon he could do a better job than Wilson as the Scotland co-captain next season.

  10. Edinburgh had a great season last year and there was a general upswelling of hope that they would progress this year.

    I think we have discovered Schrodingers Edinburgh this season – capable of both progression and regression at the same time.

    In terms of league then sadly it doesn’t look great on the surface – a lower placed finish would indicate that the team have been found out with regards to tactics.

    In terms of the Champions Cup though – boom! What a season. Topping a very tough group, and coming within a whisker of a semi final place can only be considered huge progress after years in the Challenge Cup wilderness. Edinburgh did not look out of place in this tournament and will grace it again.

    Why the disparity? A more than solid first choice squad, with a rather soft underbelly of younger players. The first choice players got flogged, and due to the increased demands of the Champions Cup, this lead to a very sharp decline in form at the business end of the season.

    Is this a bad thing? Perhaps not. Young guys like Callum Hunter-Hill, George Taylor, Charlie Shiel have all been blooded. The likes of Leinster have always been good at this drip-feed of talent, Glasgow seem to have cracked it. Edinburgh are now starting the curve. I think they will be better for it.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion