Edinburgh’s 2019-2020 season kicked off at BT Murrayfield way back in September 2019 with a comprehensive 50-15 win against Zebre that featured a hat trick from Mark Bennett. A week later a trip to Cardiff ended with another win albeit the margin was considerably tighter.
A trip to Dublin followed and Edinburgh, like everyone else, left empty handed at the hands of champions Leinster. They bounced back in good style against a weakened Scarlets side in the next game before hitting another bump on the road the following week this time against Benetton. This was a scrappy affair with neither side really deserving of the win but my recollection is that van Der Walt missed a kick in the 67th minute which would have given Edinburgh the lead and after that there was no further scoring and the Benetton defence stood firm to take the win, 18-16.
Next up, Dragons fell to the Edinburgh sword (I know) and then Agen were dismantled in France to open the capital sides Challenge Cup campaign.
Bordeaux held on at BT Murrayfield in the next game to record a last minute draw that felt like a defeat for the home side.
Cork was Edinburgh’s next destination and two things stood out in their game against Munster. One, that Edinburgh won and two, that Pierre Schoeman’s post protector lifting led to a change in world rugby laws. In truth Munster took a gamble to play a 2nd strength side but it backfired on them. With the way things eventually turned out this defeat may have cost them at least a place in the final.
On the back of that win Edinburgh resumed duties in the Challenge Cup and beat Wasps, struggling with injuries to props, home and away in the double header.
Defeat in the first leg of the 1872 cup followed at Scotstoun in a game punctuated by Ben Blain’s fussy refereeing and 5 yellow cards. For all that, Edinburgh thought they had it won in the 71st minute through a cracking try from Blair Kinghorn only for Edinburgh reject, George Turner, to win the game for Glasgow 5 minutes later.
Revenge however was sweet post Christmas as Edinburgh took the win 29-19 and the five points to level the series.
Into 2020 and Edinburgh only lost once between January and lockdown commencing. Wins against Kings, Agen, Scarlets, Connacht and Cardiff were offset by a difficult trip to Bordeaux which started with gilet jaune and tear gas, and finished with Scotttish tears as the home side ran out comfortable 32-17 winners.
Then lockdown happened and everything changed, including some players leaving who would not return when the rugby did. Most notably, John Barclay (retirement), Matt Scott (Leicester), Simon Hickey (Hurricanes), Dougie Fife (New England Free Jacks) and Callum Hunter-Hill whose Saracens loan became a permanent deal.
There were incomers too at this stage. These included Andrew Davidson, Lee Roy Atalifo, and Matt Gordon. A host of young Scottish players were promoted from the academy and there was also a failed transfer when it was discovered that Aussie standoff Jono Lance – who had all but moved in – would not be granted a visa to remain, having not played enough rugby for Worcester in the previous year.
Post lockdown the storage of the 1872 Cup was settled for another season in an empty BT Murrayfield as Edinburgh went on to defeat their old rivals 30-15 and secured a place in the semi final of the shortened version of the league season.
With all the important stuff settled the final regular season fixture, again vs Glasgow, again at BT Murrayfield, was won by the west coasters in what was, even in those rugby starved times, one of the dullest games of rugby ever recorded. The most interesting thing about this match was the presence of a socially distant test audience whose selection seemed predicated on having a single-digit Edinburgh postcode.
If that was a dull game, a week later Edinburgh’s home semi-final against Ulster was a cracker (no crowd this time) but the Irish side got the hat, the joke and the plastic toy as they prevailed with a resurgent second-half performance and an Ian Madigan penalty kick at the death to win a place in the PRO14 final.
That was Edinburgh’s league campaign done but a Challenge Cup quarter-final against by now regular opponents Bordeaux-Begles, was still to come. It started badly and Edinburgh were 14 points down after only 10 minutes. They rallied though, and stayed in the fight right to the end. Ultimately though the result of this knockout match was depressingly similar to others we’ve seen before.
Success or not?
Edinburgh fans are obsessed with progress. Probably because for too long there seemed to be precious little of it. It would be akin to climate change denial to suggest that there hasn’t been significant progress during Richard Cockerill’s reign.
Let’s look at the league in the first instance. In the regular season Edinburgh scored on average more match points than they have in the last 10 years. 3.4 points per game. The best before that was in Cockerill’s initial season when the average was 3.2. Over his 3 seasons so far their average match points is 3. Edinburgh have never got close to that in 10 years of trying.
In the regular league season, 2019-2020, they won 11 of 15 games which is a win ratio of 73%. Best win rate in the previous 10 years was 68% and take a guess what year that was? Before Cockerill the best they could manage was 50%.
I suspect Edinburgh would have made the knockout stage of the PRO14 even if all the fixtures had been played as they should have. However, they may have had to have settled for an away quarter-final in that scenario. So knockout rugby in two of Cockerill’s three seasons is not to be lightly dismissed.
In those same three seasons Edinburgh have never failed to reach the knockout stages of either the Challenge Cup or the Champions Cup. They are once again in the Champions Cup for season 2020-2021.
So, by the admittedly not great standards of Edinburgh gone by, this has been a good season, arguably the best they’ve probably ever had and I expect that there are a few PRO14 teams that would willingly swap places.
Surely the definition of a good season has to be more complex than just winning everything though. It has to be acknowledged that the reason I am talking about statistics, definitions and win ratios is that there is nothing more tangible to show for all that progress. Edinburgh are 5 and 0 for knockout stage wins. It could have been so much better.
Why is this?
Some have pointed to lack of big-game experience in the wake of Edinburgh’s PRO14 knockout defeat at the hands of Ulster, but only 1 player in that Ulster side has played in a trophy-winning team. Edinburgh, as I just mentioned, have played 5 knockout games in 3 years. Is that not big-game experience?
Is it a mental stumbling block? It has most likely played a part but I don’t think that’s the whole story. It’s just more likely that at the business end of a campaign the quality required to go one step further just wasn’t there. In the two most recent losses there has been at least 5 easily recalled instances where Edinburgh have spurned gilt edged chances to score.
It has been suggested that Edinburgh are one dimensional. Too reliant on the box kick (or Duhan). There may be something in that. This season Edinburgh’s forwards have scored a mere 10 tries and only one of those was via their much-vaunted back row. The rest, all 57 of them have been scored by backs.
Now that may be par for the course but what is interesting is that there is evidence that if you stop Edinburgh’s wings, you have a good chance of beating them. In games that Edinburgh won this season their wingers scored 1.5 tries on average. In the losses, 0.5 tries. When you work out that those knockout defeats have been by an average of one converted try that is a significant statistic.
That’s not a criticism of the wingers. I suppose it could just be coincidence. After all if you lose you expect to score less tries but just look at the game v Ulster and see how it got away from Edinburgh once the threat from their wingers was nullified.
To maintain this progress that weight needs to be shared more. If more tries can be scored by more players then just stopping the wingers won’t be as effective.
I expect the league to get harder though. Recruitment is going to be difficult in current financial climes. There may be an influx of strong South African sides and perhaps at least one of the weaker ones will be gone entirely. Munster are stronger and even Dragons no longer look like the pushover they have been of late. Leinster are just Leinster.
I could go on but the upshot is that Edinburgh are at a tipping point and if they are to fall forwards a win when it matters the most is probably the only progress worth talking about from here on.