Edinburgh may have found in the unlikely setting of a windy stadium just off the M60 what has been missing in this chaotic, fractured rugby reason – the resilience that made them so admirable.
Down 12-0 at half-time to Sale at the echoing AJ Bell – and lucky for it to be just that – they scraped their way back in the second half and found the 16-15 win that keeps them in the Heineken Champions’ Cup until the Sharks come to Murrayfield for the return.
Could this win be the tipping point for Edinburgh’s season? At least, they’ve found a baseline from which to build.
Defence and setpiece, rather than tantrums
Richard Cockerill likes to cultivate the hard task master image but there were no tea cups flying or hairdryers shattering in the half-time dressing room.
According to man of the match Hamish Watson, it was all pretty positive. They understood that two outrageous defensive lapses – there was a third that wasn’t punished – were the cause of Sale’s two tries.
Defence has been one of the strengths of Edinburgh’s renaissance under Cockerill, but it’s been patchy this season.
Perhaps that’s a sign of the selection disruption in the last two months. In the second half the defence was hugely better – but for one harum-scarum spell where a forward pass was eventually picked up by the TMO to let Edinburgh off the hook.
The other foundation was the scrummage, a source of penalties and territory Edinburgh eventually exploited in the second half. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Cockerill could call on six better front row forwards in his 23 than any of Sale’s.
The milestone-makers were massive
I’m not sure if the fans really care about these now-regular milestones. But it did seem Stuart McInally (making his 150th appearance) and Chris Dean (100th) chose to mark theirs with their best performances of the season.
McInally was magnificent – Dave Cherry was just as good for the final 10 minutes – with 15 tackles, six carries, worrying the opposition possession often, and hitting his lineout targets.
Dean carried strongly, tackled constantly, and delivered the super short pass to spring Mark Bennett for the restorative try after his defensive brainstorm had gifted one to Sale.
Watson comes home in style
Born in Manchester, Hamish Watson had his best performance of the season there. Reportedly livid he was left out of the Scotland game in Dublin – quite rightly, in my opinion – he reminded Gregor Townsend that he has to be one of the first names on the teamsheet if he’s available.
Can Edinburgh keep him this summer? It should be a final career contract for the 29-year-old, so it could be time for him to cash in, especially if he makes the Lions tour.
Where’s Bill? And Duhan?
Edinburgh didn’t play much rugby in the second half but they developed such a stranglehold, they didn’t need to. However the cutting edge has been missing this season thus far.
Bill Mata does not look up to speed yet after his injury lay-off. Edinburgh need him to be the X-factor and difference-maker in open play.
And they’re simply not making the most of Duhan van der Merwe. The wing has looked a lonely figure in the two games since he returned from his successful Scotland start. Getting him on the ball in infield situations has to be a priority.
Where from here?
Edinburgh’s loss to La Rochelle – avoidable, although they were beaten by the better team – still makes for a tough route to the last eight.
Last year Sale were out of the competition when Glasgow visited, and basically a youth team that were handily thrashed. One suspects the NCC is not a priority now they can’t qualify, especially after Steve Diamond’s sudden departure.
Edinburgh have to take advantage in their return match against the Sharks and then sneak a win in Western France. Their re-found resilience at least gives them a fighting chance.
An unfortunate break, but a welcome rest
Covid-19 has caused this ludicrously gruelling schedule in rugby this winter. The sting in the tail is this weekend’s postponements which have made a mockery of the Heineken Champions’ Cup.
It is what it is. There’s little merit in Glasgow challenging the statutory 28-0 loss to Lyon or their official complaint about Exeter’s mask-wearing. This season’s tournament was compromised from that start.
The benefit is that Scotland’s players, worked to the limit in the last three months as rugby has grasped for every TV right penny it can find, will now get a break with the first festive 1872 derby – and possibly the second – postponed.
I thought some players were looking visibly fatigued on both teams until Edinburgh perked up on Saturday night. Some respite at this stage of the season might actually be a good idea.