Fun while it lasted
April 29, 2012
Edinburgh's Netani Talei reflects on his side's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Ulster in Dublin © Getty Images
It was enjoyable while it lasted, but Edinburgh's mad European adventure finally came to an end in Dublin when the Scots came across a South African scrum-half in imperious form.
Irish rugby is alive with a debate about foreigners in their provinces at the moment but Ruan Pienaar did Ulster's cause no end of good on Saturday evening as he orchestrated victory by kicking five penalties and dominating the tactical battle. How the Springboks can thrive without him, only they know.
Edinburgh were not swept away but nor were they quite able to rise to the task at hand. They bossed the first 40 minutes but they didn't score points when they had the upper hand, including when Stefan Terblanche was yellow carded on 28 minutes. Pienaar popped up with his second penalty to "win" the sin bin period 3-0. The second half was all Ulster until Jim Thompson's late, late touchdown courtesy of Netani Talei and Matt Scott.
At least Edinburgh's cup run gave Scottish supporters something to shout about, even if Saturday's venue was about as "neutral" as the Nuremburg rally, with Ulster men outnumbering Edinburgh fans by about ten to one.
The impact of Edinburgh's run is far wider reaching than just the approximate one million euros it generated for Murrayfield's cash-strapped coffers. Professional rugby has pretty much passed the Scots by, at least until now. There were pundits seriously proclaiming only recently that, for some unknown reason, pro rugby would never take off in Scotland despite it being a roaring success almost everywhere else.
They had a point, Edinburgh attracted less than two thousand fans to one recent league match, but then again who wants to pay good money to see their side cuffed because Edinburgh remain glued to the ugly end of the RaboDirect.
A side that is beating the cream of Europe is another matter and Edinburgh proved they can win in more ways than just their traditional wide/wide game. They beat Cardiff and Toulouse in Edinburgh up front but they did throw the ball about like mad men in the utterly bizarre meeting with Racing Metro which Sky Sports, in their infinite stupidity, opted not to televise. It was a one-off, a priceless gem of a match where two teams were utterly intent on attacking at every opportunity.
The sides shared 11 tries (six to Edinburgh) and the two kickers - Greig Laidlaw and Jon Wisniewski - took a total of 17 kicks at goal and neither man missed a single one on the night. Only 5,200 fans saw the game, although that figure is sure to rise over the years.
Had Edinburgh done nothing else all season you would have forgiven them for playing their part in that belter of a game, so a Heineken semi-final was a welcome bonus. The odd thing is that Edinburgh arrived from nowhere to get there.
Everyone knows their league form has been not just patchy but downright bloody awful and Edinburgh's Heineken credentials weren't exactly impressive ahead of this run. The six matches they won this season in Europe are exactly six more than they won last year. Moreover they did it with boys not men. Three of Edinburgh's starting fifteen against Ulster are still on apprentice contracts, at least until the end of the season, although you'd imagine that the agents of Matt Scott, Grant Gilchrist and fullback Tom Brown will be walking around rubbing their hands together like Fagin in the next week or so.
The problem is that for all that feel-good factor, the 38,000 fans that turned out for quarter-final victory over Toulouse and the money that this cup run generated will be wasted unless Edinburgh back it up next year and Laidlaw noted that it will be more difficult because teams will be forewarned, no one will take them lightly after an semi-final loss and a fighting one at that.
The good news is that only Mike Blair will be missing from next year's line-up and Edinburgh have recruited aggressively to bolster their squad, with the South African prop WP Nel coming in to anchor a set scrum that was the main cause of their loss to Ulster. He will be joined by Northampton fullback Greig Tonks, who is qualified to play for Scotland, Welsh duo Richie Rees and John Yapp, Georgian breakaway Dimitri Basilaia and one-time All Black Ben Atiga.
Will they be successful? It's impossible to say but the confidence this young team has gathered from their Heineken showing must go a long way to overturning the players' "we-are-not-worthy" attitude which is as traditionally Scottish as a breakfast of haggis and Buckfast. The point is that this team has proven that the professional rugby can work in Scotland, their cup run and the fact that 10,000 watched the London Irish game and a record crowd witnessed them turn over Toulouse prove that fans will flock to success.
Pro rugby can work and the fact that Edinburgh proved it is more important than anything else they have achieved this year.
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