STUART BATHGATE @ Murrayfield
EDINBURGH made it four wins from six in the PRO14 thanks to this hard-fought win, and even if it was an undistinguished performance, they are clearly heading in the right direction as Europe looms. They are second in Conference B right now, and although Munster and Scarlets have a game in hand, it has still been a good opening burst to the league season by Richard Cockerill’s side.
With John Barclay and Ben Toolis starting for the first time since the World Cup and three of their colleagues from coming off the bench, Edinburgh are now back to pretty much full strength. They still need to rediscover some sharpness, but in the circumstances this was a mature and relatively composed display which augurs well for the European campaign.
“We deserved to win,” Cockerill said. “You can’t be too sad when you win, but we need to be better.
“Credit to them, they played well and made it hard for us. We struggled to break them down. We’ll have better days, but you can’t be too downbeat when you win. We were a little bit flat tonight – I don’t know why, because it’s been a good training week.”
Fire in their bellies
Under Cockerill’s old England team-mate Dean Ryan, Dragons are more solid, competitive and harder to beat, and they began this match in assertive fashion. Sam Davies missed a chance to give the Welsh side an early lead with a penalty from out wide, and although the visitors retained the upper hand for a while, Edinburgh’s defence at the breakdown was more than a match for them, with Pierre Schoeman and Luke Crosbie being particularly effective. At the other end, the home pack thought they had scored from a lineout maul after a penalty was sent to touch, but the referee had called for a second stop and gave Dragons a scrum.
The penalty had been right in front of the posts, so one way or the other it was a chance squandered, but Edinburgh quickly made amends in similar circumstances. This time the ball came back from the lineout maul, and with too many defenders having been drawn in, Blair Kinghorn had ample space to slice through the defence for the first try of the night, converted by Simon Hickey.
Davies’ second attempt at goal crashed back off an upright as Dragons struggled to find a foothold, while Edinburgh continued to defend patiently. An excellent kick chase out of defence saw Cockerill’s team awarded a penalty, which again went to touch only for the lineout maul to fail well short of the lineout.
Some variety in attack appeared to be needed, and five minutes before the break it arrived when Edinburgh opted to scrum a penalty in front of the opposition posts. The first one went down; they scrummed again. The second one led to a drive that was halted illegally, and this time, perhaps remembering the futile six-minute slog just before the break at Benetton a week earlier, they went for the penalty. Hickey made no mistake to take the score at the break to 10-0.
Very soon after the restart it seemed that had increased to 15-0 as Matt Scott barged through on an angle, but Mike Willemse’ pass had gone forward so the score was chalked off. That was at worst a minor setback, but a more perilous one came when Toolis was yellow-carded for blocking full-back Jordan Williams on a counter-attack. Within minutes, Dragons had mounted their most threatening attack of the game, but Edinburgh were again equal to the task, with Schoeman and Scott combining this time to snuff out the danger.
By the time Dragons blindside Huw Taylor was sinbinned for repeated offences, Edinburgh had wound down the clock deep in enemy territory. Hickey added three points from the penalty, and it looked like the home team were close to sewing up the points. Instead, Dragons hit back with their first score of the night, a simple move from a scrum that saw Sam Davies put Adam Warren through on an angle. Davies converted, and the game was wide open as it went into its final quarter.
Simon Berghan had come off the bench by that time, and he was joined by World Cup colleagues Grant Gilchrist and Jamie Ritchie as Edinburgh tried to reimpose their dominance and take advantage of the few minutes in which they were a man up. The impact was immediate: a powerful drive took the forwards through the middle, then when the ball was spun wide, Kinghorn and Ritchie combined to put Duhan van der Merwe in at the left corner. Hickey converted.
Magnus Bradbury lost control just short of the line after his team’s third try of the night seemed to be on its way, but there were just a few minutes to play by then and Dragons had no chance to fight back. Unlike last week’s similarly dour match against Benetton, Edinburgh had done enough to take the four points.
Edinburgh: B Kinghorn; E Sau, M Bennett, M Scott, D van der Merwe; S Hickey, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, M Willemse, P Ceccarelli, L Carmichael, B Toolis, J Barclay, L Crosbie, M Bradbury. Subs: C Fenton, R Sutherland, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie, C Shiel, J van der Walt, G Taylor.
Dragons: J Williams; O Jenkins, A Warren, J Dixon, A Hewitt; S Davies, R Williams (captain); B Harris, R Hibbard, L Brown, J Davies, M Screech, H Taylor, T Basham, H Keddie. Subs: E Shipp, J Reynolds, L Fairbrother, M Williams, J Benjamin, L Baldwin, A Robson, T Morgan.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).
Scorers: Edinburgh: Tries: Kinghorn, Van der Merwe. Cons: Hickey 2. Pens: Hickey 2.
Dragons: Try: Warren. Con: S Davies.
Scoring sequence (Edinburgh first): 5-0, 7-0, 10-0 half-time, 13-0, 13-5, 13-7, 18-7, 20-7.
Yellow cards: Edinburgh: Toolis 47. Dragons: Taylor 54.