SMALL margins win big games, they say, and that has certainly been the case in Edinburgh’s last two major matches. Both times against Munster, first in the 2018 PRO14 quarter-final and then at the same stage of the Champions Cup the following year, they lost by a single score. As his squad look forward to Saturday’s league semi-final against Ulster, captain Stuart McInally is confident that, thanks to those two matches, they are now well aware of what needs to be done in order to go at least one step further.
“If you look back on those two games against Munster, they were both decided on small moments,” the hooker said yesterday. “They were both one-score games.
“The main thing I learned was that those big games just come down to really small moments. And small moments that happen in other games – it could be a lost lineout or a scrum penalty – sometimes you get away with them and you can then make up for it later in the game, or there’s time to score another try.
“In a knockout game, against the big teams, you can’t afford that. When a team loses they’ll look back on one or two moments and they’ll say ‘Well, that potentially cost us’.
“So that’s one thing I feel we’ve learned. That was something I was stressing to the boys: we just have to stay in the moment. Every single play could win you the game, so just making sure we’re focused for the full 80 minutes has been the key, and making sure we take our learnings from those games is massive.”
For Scottish players of the 30-year-old’s longevity and standing in the game, and indeed for Scottish rugby followers of any vintage, looking at the roll of honour in both Europe and the PRO14 over the past quarter-century has to be a frustrating experience. No Scots team has so much as appeared in the final of the Champions Cup, never mind won it, while Glasgow’s sole PRO12 triumph of 2015 is surrounded in the record books by a list of Irish and Welsh names.
Edinburgh did reach the Challenge Cup final in 2015, of course, losing to Gloucester, but that was a different era, under a different coach – and, to be frank, in a competition which many big clubs treat with barely disguised disdain. Reaching the PRO14 final would be an altogether more significant achievement, testifying to a consistently high standard over the course of this interrupted season, and McInally knows how much it would mean to the game in this country if his team can get past Ulster and go through to meet either Munster or Leinster in the final.
“If we could get past this weekend and I lead the boys out in a final it would certainly be the pinnacle of my Edinburgh career,” he continued. “I don’t like getting too far ahead of myself. It would be massive. I’ve been at this club ten years and never really won anything. It would be nice to have a chance to really put our mark down on this competition, look back and say ‘We won the cup’. That’s our goal. We’re in the semi-finals now and not just here to make up the numbers. We’re going for it.
“Certainly for Scottish rugby it would be huge and it would be us achieving something we never have before at Edinburgh. That’s a big motivating factor for us and it would be a big confidence boost for us knowing we can compete in what has turned into a 15-game season and then into play-offs. To beat a team like Ulster to reach a first final, we would feel we’ve earned the right to be there.”
Beating a team like Ulster has certainly proven pretty difficult for Edinburgh in recent years. When the league was cut short this season, the scheduled cross-conference match between the teams was one of the fixtures to be discarded, but in 2018-19 McInally’s team lost both at Murrayfield and in Belfast, and also lost the second game in the 2017-18 league campaign.
But that record of three defeats in a row is irrelevant, according to McInally. “I don’t read anything into that,” he said. “I’ve played Ulster before and won. We read into our current form and our position in the league table. That’s where we get our confidence from. These games are one-off games. It doesn’t really matter who you’re playing, you know it will be a tough match.
“If you look at their history in the competition, I guess they would probably be favourites going into the game, but that doesn’t bother us – we just have to back ourselves. We’re focused on trying to put our best game out there: who’s favourites doesn’t really bother us.
“There’s no excuses. We have to turn up and deliver our best game, that’s all we can do. If on the day our best game is good enough, we’ll win. If it’s not, we won’t. Players have to understand the magnitude of the game, and how hard we’ve worked to get here.”