BEFORE this game, Richard Cockerill said his team would probably have to win four out of their last five games to qualify for the play-offs. That daunting task now reads four out of four after a draining defeat by Conference B rivals Benetton, who are now favourites to go through as one of the two best teams behind runaway winners Leinster.
A superb second-half try by James Johnstone was the highlight of a dour battle, restoring a lead that Edinburgh had enjoyed for much of the first half. But Benetton, who have not lost in the PRO14 since November finished the stronger side, and once they got back on top they never looked like relinquishing their advantage.
Despite the defeat, however, Cockerill remains hopeful that his team will also end up in the top three. “Look, in isolation it’s disappointing, but I just said to the boys we’ve got four games to go. There is every chance we can qualify in that top three, and we’ll fight every inch to make sure that we do that.
“Our season is very much alive, but when you get an opportunity you have to take it, and it’s hard work in the Six Nations period but we have to deal with that. Notwithstanding that we have to learn when we are two points up not to overplay in our own half and we don’t have to force the game and we have to control the game and at times we didn’t.”
There was a grim fascination about the first half, a tough, tense tussle in which there was brute force aplenty but precious little finesse. Jaco Van der Walt opened the scoring with a second-minute penalty from more than 40 metres out, but Edinburgh were unable to profit further from a dominant opening spell, twice being turned over by a wily home defence. However, the visitors were just as astute when forced to defend deep themselves after Ian McKinley had kicked a penalty to touch, snuffing out a threatening attack when Johnstone stripped the ball away in the tackle.
Midway through the half, the home stand-off again went for touch with another kickable penalty, but Edinburgh were more than up to the task. First they turned over the ball from the attack that came from the lineout, and then, after the clearance kick, winger Jack Blain won a penalty thanks to an excellent chase.
With Ross Ford on for the injured David Cherry, Edinburgh were on the offensive again. But, while their patience was commendable, they lacked the imagination needed to pose the defence real problems.
After half an hour, Benetton declined for a third time to go for goal, but when the lineout drive went infield and Edinburgh offended again right in front of the posts, McKinley sensibly opted to take the points. Moments later Monty Ioane thought he had put his team ahead with a clever chip and collect, but George Clancy’s whistle had blown for a forward pass some time before the winger touched down.
The half ended with Pierre Schoeman forcing a penalty for holding on as Benetton again threatened. It was a reassuring sign for Edinburgh, but they knew they would have to do more in the second 40 than merely keep the home team at bay.
Premiership match reports:
WP Nel did not reappear for the second half, having done enough on his return from injury to prove himself fit for Scotland duty next weekend. Pietro Ceccarelli came on at tighthead, while Ben Toolis replaced Callum Hunter-Hill at lock.
After the virtual stalemate of the first half, Benetton quickly got on top following the restart, and went ahead for the first time after 45 minutes. A marginal decision had given them a scrum five when an Edinburgh throw-in was ruled not straight, and after six or seven phases, Niccolo Cannone forced his way over. McKinley’s conversion attempt came back off the posts, but in such a tight contest it was a precious lead nonetheless.
Cockerill’s team upped the tempo as they went in search of a reply, and they got it with a magnificent try from Johnstone. A burst down the left wing from Luke Crosbie had set up a good position, and Pierre Schoeman then made inroads through the middle, but the centre still had an awful lot to do when he received possession just outside the home 22. He did it awfully well, jinking his way past four defenders before stretching out to score a try to which Van der Walt added the two points to restore his team’s lead.
Space had opened up considerably as the game went into its final 15 minutes, but the Edinburgh defence still had the energy to keep its shape and withstand some strong pressure, with Fraser McKenzie initiating a crucial counter-ruck on the edge of his own 22. But they lost possession from the resultant scrum when Chris Dean knocked on a loose pass from Ally Miller, and with advantage being played for an offence by Schoeman, a kick through by Ioane was ruled to have been grounded by Antonio Rizzi even though Tom Brown appeared to have got a hand on the ball at the same time. The substitute, who had only been on for three minutes, converted his own score, leaving Edinburgh 10 minutes to get back on top.
Instead, it was Benetton who finished more strongly, and had the last word when a Rizzi penalty deprived Edinburgh of the losing bonus point. There had been controversial elements to both of their tries, but they were marginally the better team all the same, and look sure to go on from this latest victory to claim that place in the play-offs.
Cockerill had no initial complaint about the TMO’s decision to award Rizzi’s try, and emphasised how difficult it was to get a good run of form together given the scale of absences during the Six Nations. “I haven’t seen it close enough, to be honest,” he added. “It’s pretty manic here. I need to see it close up.
“I thought from a performance point of view we played pretty well – we played to our potential with what we’ve got. We had chances to exit our half of the field when we were 10-8 up but we didn’t and we turned ball over and we invited them into our 22 and they punished us.
“We are bitterly disappointed, but a lot of guys missing. We are working hard but didn’t get the result and we need to learn from that.”
Teams –Benetton: L Sperandio; R Tavuyara, M Zanon, A Sgarbi (captain), M Ioane; I McKinley (A Rizzi 67), D Duvenage; N Quaglio (D Appiah 41), T Baravalle (H Faiva 50), M Riccioni (T Pasquali 62), I Herbst, N Cannone (M Barbini 54), M Lazzaroni, G Pettinelli, T Halafihi (R Barbieri 67).
Edinburgh: T Brown; D Hoyland, J Johnstone, C Dean (M Bennett 74), J Blain; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos (captain, N Fowles 76)); P Schoeman, D Cherry (R Ford 24), W Nel (P Ceccarelli 41), F McKenzie, C Hunter-Hill (B Toolis 41), L Crosbie, H Watson (S Nayalo 50), A Miller.
Scorers: Benetton: Tries: Cannone, Rizzi. Con: Rizzi. Pens: McKinley, Rizzi.
Edinburgh: Try: Johnstone. Con: Van der Walt. Pen: Van der Walt.
Scoring sequence (Benetton first): 0-3, 3-3 half-time, 8-3, 8-8, 8-10, 13-10, 15-10, 18-10.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).