Challenge Cup: gritty Edinburgh claim inspired win over Saracens

Head coach Mike Blair admits interest in signing Sam Skinner for next season

Edinburgh Saracens
The Edinburgh squad celebrate at full-time after beating Saracens. Image: © Craig Watson. www.craigwatson.co.uk

Saracens 18

Edinburgh 21

STUART BATHGATE @ Stonex Stadium

EDINBURGH’s season continues in mightily impressive form. Their displays in the opening rounds of the URC have been inspired enough, but this Challenge Cup win against the three-time champions of Europe was surely at an extra level.

The heavy rain may have cut down on the creativity shown by Mike Blair’s side compared to recent weeks, but they displayed heaps of character to hold on at the death. Saracens might have snatched the win right on full-time when a number of them drove over the line. But that would have been an unjust outcome, and, after much deliberation, the referee disallowed the score for obstruction.

With three rounds of pool games to go, Saracens will still be able to contend for a place in the knockout stages if they put their minds to it. Edinburgh have a fallow week next so do not compete in the cup again until after the year, so their following two games are the double-header against Glasgow. The grit and determination they showed here will stand them in good stead for those matches, and Blair was rightly proud of the character his team had displayed.


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“Not many teams come down here and win,” the head coach said. “I said last week about entertaining – that was not one to entertain. That was one to grind through. 

“When I spoke to the guys after the game I didn’t talk about the rugby side. There was some excellent game management. There was some other stuff that from a team point of view we need to get better at.

“But what I talked  about was the heart and the attitude and the commitment to playing for the jersey. That’s something that we’re really trying to instil at the club – about that pride in the history of the jersey and what it means to play for Edinburgh. 

“That’s what got us through the game – that attitude. It wasn’t other things, it was putting your body on the line and giving everything for the jersey.”

Saracens received a late pre-match boost when Maro Itoje, omitted from their original line-up, was cleared to play after Covid concerns. That meant Nick Isiekwe moved down to the bench, and Tim Swinson dropped out of the squad altogether. A burst water main in the area had briefly threatened to force a postponement, but in the end the match went ahead in conditions made difficult by the worsening rain.

An Emiliano Boffelli penalty gave Edinburgh an early lead after a promising opening attack had been illegally thwarted. But Saracens soon got into their stride, and captain Alex Goode gave them the lead with a try in the left corner after a smart tip-on from Ben Earl.

The platform for the score had been established by a powerful scrum in the visitors’ 22, and Saracens’ dominance in the first few set pieces was an ominous sign for Edinburgh. But the conversion attempt was missed, the Scots pack won a penalty at the next scrum, and Boffelli made it two out of two from bang on halfway. 

Sarries then lost cousins Billy Vunipola and Kapeli Pifeleti to injury in quick succession, and while the No 8 was able to leave the field under his own steam after falling awkwardly, hooker Pifeleti needed to be stretchered off after being knocked out.  Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said that Pifeleti was “up and about in the changing room”, and added it was too early to tell if  Vunipola, who was out for much of November with a knee injury, had suffered a similar problem.  

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After a lengthy break, play resumed with a strong Edinburgh scrum. Ben Vellacott fed Charlie Savala, who spotted Ramiro Moyano free on the left and punted cleverly towards the corner. The Argentina international beat the last defender to the high ball and touched down, with Boffelli adding the two points to stretch his team’s lead to 5-13.

Saracens were stung by that score and hit back immediately. Andy Christie was hauled down short of the line when he attacked in front of the posts, but when his fellow-forwards took play out to the left there was no stopping him from closer range. 

Manu Vunipola converted, and it was game on at 12-13. The home side fought hard to regain the lead before the break but were kept at bay by some excellent Edinburgh defending. 

That changed within a minute of the restart, however, when Manu Vunipola stroked over a simple penalty from in front of the posts after Edinburgh had illegally halted a dangerous drive. Ten minutes on, another long-range penalty by Boffelli put the Scots a point ahead again.

Before the hour mark Sarries were back ahead thanks to a Manu Vunipola penalty, then minutes later Boffelli missed another long-range attempt to leave his side trailing. Edinburgh were still on top on the scrum, and when Saracens committed one offence too many, substitute loosehead Eroni Mawi was sent to the sin bin.

Edinburgh wasted little time in taking advantage. They thought they had scored immediately but had it chalked off for a double movement, but the referee was playing advantage. The penalty went to touch, and Willem Nel finished off. 

Boffelli missed the conversion, and that appeared to put fresh heart into Saracens, who went back on the attack in the dying minutes. Awarded a penalty with seconds left on the clock, they kicked to touch then forced the lineout drive over the line, but a review of the incident led to the declaration that it was no score.

Hamish Watson and James Lang were both injured in the first half but Blair said it  is too early to know if they will be OK for the double-header against Glasgow.  And the coach confirmed that Exeter’s Scotland international forward Sam Skinner is a target for next season, although he insisted that nothing had been determined yet.

“Sam is a quality player and he’s certainly someone we’ve had a look at. Nothing is confirmed with that.

“We’re trying to build a squad next year that fits with how we want to play, and it’s also something with how our players take control of the squad and show leadership. The signings that we’re looking at will hopefully mimic some of that. It does take time to get the squad you want.”

 

For the London club, McCall was not too disheartened by the result given those conditions as well as the changes he had made to his squad.  “We had a mix of some senior players and some younger ones and all of them did really well today,” he said. “I’m pleased with some aspects but disappointed to lose the game.

“We worked very hard for our couple of tries in the first half and they didn’t have to work all that hard for their points. They had three penalties from the halfway line from scrum penalties and a first-phase try that was well taken by them and badly defended by us. 

“We worked really hard for our points and had the better chances, more opportunities close to their line than they had close to ours. Conditions dictated the game and I thought there were things to be encouraged by.”

 

Teams –

Saracens: A Goode (captain); A Lewington (E Obatoyinbo 68), E Daly, A Lozowski (N Tompkins 58), M Malins; Manu Vunipola, I van Zyl (A Davies 58); Mako Vunipola (E Mawi 51), K Pifeleti (E Lewis 22), A Clarey (H Beaton 59), M Itoje, C Hunter-Hill (N Isiekwe 66),  A Christie, B Earl, B Vunipola (J Wray 21). 

Edinburgh: E Boffelli; J Blain, M Bennett, J Lang (C Hutchison 41), R Moyano; C Savala (J van der Walt 75), B Vellacott (H Pyrgos 53); P Schoeman (B Venter 59), S McInally (D Cherry 59), W Nel (L Atalifo 68), M Sykes (J Hodgson 58), G Gilchrist (captain), L Crosbie, H Watson (M Bradbury 41), N Haining. 

Referee: T Trainini (France).

 

Scorers –

Saracens: Tries: Goode, Christie. Con: Manu Vunipola. Pens: Manu Vunipola 2.

Edinburgh: Tries: Moyano, Nel. Con: Boffelli. Pens: Boffelli 3.

Scoring sequence (Saracens first): 0-3; 5-3; 5-6; 5-11; 5-13; 10-13; 12-13 (h-t) 15-13; 15-16; 18-16; 18-21.

 

Yellow card –

Saracens: Mawi (66mins).


Low key governance review now requires an open and constructive discussion

About Stuart Bathgate 1156 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.

7 Comments

  1. Unfortunately the highlights package on the ECC youtube channel is very limited – it seemed like a solid performance without ever hitting full tilt on the attacking side of things.

    Agree that WPN could still do a job for Scotland – not sure that we have any tightheads who can equal his scrummaging at the moment.

  2. Just watched the extended highlights- what a magnificent kick by Savala for the boffelli try.
    Tremendous effort, I have to admit I’d be starting Crosbie in the Scotland back row.

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