COLIN RENTON @ Stade Armandie
EDINBURGH kicked off their European Challenge Cup campaign with a bonus point victory that featured some scintillating rugby. The open, adventurous game that Richard Cockerill’s side delivered on a chilly night in South West France confirmed his point that he was rotating his squad rather than fielding a weakened side when he left out several front line players. And there were plenty on show who have given the coach a pleasant selection headache for next week’s clash with Bordeaux at Murrayfield.
“I thought we started really well and to fair to them they were pretty game. We made some errors in that second half. But we picked a team that we thought would come and perform. I think we did that in parts and it’s a good result for us. Mission accomplished in the fact that we came and we’ve got all the points,” said Cockerill.
“For us it’s a really good start. We know there’s going to be tougher days, and we know that’s not their best team. But our team could be stronger as well. Some of the wider members of the squad got some really good game time and we won it.”
While it was stylish and slick at times, Cockerill is not the type to get carried away. He is conscious that the performance level dipped in the second half. He also acknowledged that Bordeaux will pose a much sterner test than Agen.
An unfashionable club from a provincial town that sits midway between Toulouse and Bordeaux, Agen nonetheless have a budget that, while less eyewatering than that of many other French clubs, is still sufficient to secure the services of some impressive specimens. Among them are the Pacific Islanders, now sufficiently ingrained the in the French system that they are no longer deemed to be foreign players.
However, with his side currently languishing in the lower reaches of the Top14 table, Agen coach Christophe Laussucq took the opportunity to rest several of his front line men and make a dozen changes from the side that started in the previous Saturday’s Top 14 defeat against Bordeaux.
A change to the rules governing the academy players at French clubs means that Laussucq has had fewer opportunities to blood his rising stars. With no major Challenge Cup ambitions, he sees the competition as his opportunity to cast an eye over his future stars.
Among them is Gauthier Maravat, a powerful lock who was a member of the France side that won the Under-20 World Cup earlier this year. He was handed an opportunity to gain experience, but was fielded in the back-row alongside another teenager in Jessy Jegerlehner, and Romain Briatte, who, along with Benito Masilevu were the only survivors from the side that started against Bordeaux.
Edinburgh had also made 12 changes although Cockerill saw it more as squad rotation and, with a sprinkling of World Cup men in the line up that was a fair view of the situation.
The visitors spent the opening five minutes camped in the opposition half and there were powerful runs from Damien Hoyland and James Johnstone, but the score ine remained blank.
Indeed, it was the hosts who scored first when a penalty 40 metres out handed Thomas Vincent the chance to go for goal and he banged over the kick.
The Edinburgh response was immediate. George Taylor raced at the Agen defence then fed Eroni Sau who linked with James Johnstone to send Taylor over. Simon Hickey slotted the conversion, then did so again in 24 minutes after Taylor went over for a second time following a sublime flip out of the tackle by Grant Gilchrist.
And it got even better for Edinburgh when Hoyland kicked ahead from half way and won the race to the ball to claim his side’s third try – Hickey again converting.
That concluded the scoring for the first period and it looked as if Edinburgh would have the bonus point wrapped up early in the second period. However, all they could manage from early pressure was a penalty by Hickey.
Agen enjoyed a decent spell in the ascendancy and claimed a good try when Benito Masilevu finished off a slick handling move in the corner and Raphael Lagarde added the conversion. The hosts then took control of the game and twice came closing to crossing the whitewash for a second time.
However, an Agen fumble allowed Johnstone to hack the ball clear and create a platform for Edinburgh to finish the match strongly. With the clock in the red, a string of penalties were despatched into touch. Each time Agen offended until, deep into injury time, Edinburgh executed the lineout perfectly – a surge drove Agen back over their own line, and Cammy Fenton applied the final touch, with Hickey adding the extras.
SU Agen: L Tolot, B Masilevu (J Jane 53), J Puletua, A Conduché, T Rokoduru, T Vincent (R Lagarde 32), X Chauveau; M Phelipponneau (M Vanai 51) , L Zarantonello (F Correa 51), C Chabeaudie (D Ryan 51), A Motoc, P Phillips, G Maravat, J Jegerlehner, R Briatte (L Pearce 16)
Edinburgh Rugby: D Hoyland (D Fife 60), E Sau, J Johnstone, G Taylor, J Farndale, S Hickey, C Shiel (D Nutton 68); J Bhatti (R Sutherland 54), C Fenton, S Berghan (McCallum 61), S Thomson (L Carmichael 54), G Gilchrist (c), J Barclay, J Ritchie (A Miller 63), N Haining.
Referee: J Neville (IRFU)
Agen: Try: Masilevu; Con: Lagarde; Pen: Vincent
Edinburgh: Try: Taylor 2, Hoyland, Fenton; Con: Hickey 4; Pen: Hickey
Scoring sequence (Agen first): 3-0; 3-5; 3-7; 3-12; 3-14; 3-19; 3-21 (h-t) 3-24; 8-24; 10-24; 10-29; 10-31.
Yellow cards –
Man-of-the-match: Several of Cockerill’s understudies stepped up, none more so than George Taylor who, quite apart from his try double, was outstanding.
Talking point: Away wins are crucial to qualification for the knockout phase – to do so with a bonus point is a fantastic start.