DAVID BARNES @ The DAM Health Stadium
AFTER a narrow defeat at Saracens last weekend, Edinburgh ensured that their Champions Cup campaign is very much alive at the halfway point in the pool phase by manufacturing a bonus-point win over a Castres side which was missing a number of big names but still posed a formidable physical challenge.
It wasn’t the most polished performance Mike Blair‘s team will hope to produce this season, but it was a comfortable win in the end, and all the more satisfying because it was achieved despite losing three key players before the match was 15 minutes old, with Duhan van der Merwe dropping out prior to kick-off with an ankle injury, Stuart McInally picking up a concussion in the third minute and Blair Kinghorn retiring due to a back spasm on 13 minutes.
“That’s why I don’t want to be critical of today – we found a way to win,” said head coach Blair, when asked about those early disruptions. “We came across some adversity just before half-time as well, and I was pulling my hair out when we gave away that penalty, but to not concede anything else in those minutes before half-time was really good and meant we could go into the changing room with our chests out after playing into a tough wind and being a point up.
“I was really impressed with Castres,” he added. “They’ve got size, they’ve got cohesion and they don’t do a huge amount of special things as a team but they stick in there and their set-piece was good, so that put pressure on us, especially in the first half when the breeze was against us.
“The breeze did die a little bit in the second half, which was a shame, but we found a way to win.
“Today was one of those days where we created a fair bit but the ball wasn’t sticking,” he added. “Sometimes you have days like that and I’m just pleased it came on a day where we were still able to get five points in the bag.
“We’ve now got six points from two games, and seven points got you into the knock-out stage last time, but it depends on which pool you are in, and whether some teams drop off if they think they are not going to qualify after the first couple of games. We’ll just wait and see, and try to win all our games.”
The capital side now face their traditional festive season double-header against Glasgow and will return to European action in the New Year with their two remaining pool matches against Castres away on Sunday 15th January and Saracens at home seven days later.
Blair said he couldn’t make any guarantees but revealed that he is hopeful that van der Merwe, McInally and Kinghorn could all come back into the mix for next weekend’s trip to Scotstoun.
It was evenly matched early on although Castres had the first two clear-cut scoring chances, with Asier Usarraga spearheading a break-out from his own 22, but what could have been the killer pass to send Antoine Bouzerand on an unchallenged run to the line floated forward, then, a few minutes later, scrum-half Julien Blanc hacking ahead twice before James Lang managed to get across and hoof the ball into touch five yards from Edinburgh’ line.
So, it was Edinburgh who broke the deadlock on 19 minutes when their first concerted period of pressure earned a breakdown penalty right under the sticks. Pierre Schoeman took the tap and produced a quick recycle from which Viliame Mata crashed over.
Emiliano Boffelli added the simple conversion, but Castres bounced back almost immediately, with a collapsed scrum penalty– echoes of last week – kicked to the corner, and when Jamie Ritchie got up to the disrupt the line-out the ball deflected to hooker Pierre Colonna, who shrugged off Mata and Damien Hoyland on his rampage to the line.
There was no conversion on this occasion but Edinburgh’s narrow lead lasted only a few minutes more, with a holding-on penalty being awarded against Ritchie and Castres marching downfield to score again through Blanc, after some incisive running from Martin Laveau and Atoning Zeghdar up the right touchline.
Edinburgh rallied, and Grant Gilchrist breaking from the base of a ruck was held up over the line, before then home team did manage to recapture the lead with less than four minutes left in the half when Castres loose-head prop Quentin Walcker was yellow-carded for coming in at the side to collapse a line-out maul as it powered towards his team’s line.
Despite being a man down, Castres finished this opening 40 minutes the stronger of the two sided, with Julien Dumora slotting a scrum penalty awarded against Schoeman to reduced it to a single point game, and the Frenchmen spending the final few minutes camped on Edinburgh’s line, although they couldn’tt find a way over the whitewash.
Edinburgh started the second period brightly, and after Boffelli let a golden opportunity slip by when he failed to gather Lang’s offload, the home team eventually struck again when replacement stand-off Charlie Savala wrapped round Lang and sneaked behind the back of Luke Crosbie‘s dummy run to sniff out a gap to the line, setting up a straightforward Boffelli conversion.
Castres cleared their bench and it initially had the desired effect, prompting several minutes of pressure inside Edinburgh’s half, but the home defence did well to weather the storm – not helped by Boffelli missing touch with a penalty clearance for the second time in the match – and they then stretched further ahead with a sweeping counter-attack try launched from inside their own 22 by Chris Dean‘s delicate to-poke which released Lang on the right, who then hacked into the in-goal area, which Martin Laveau appeared to have covered before he misjudged the bounce allowing Ben Vallacott to sneak in for the try.
That meant the bonus-point and a 15-point cushion, but Edinburgh took their foot off the gas and Castres scrambled back into the contest when a long passage of play culminated in Adrien Seguret strolling through a yawning gap and over for try which Ben Botica converted.
That’s as close as the visitors got, however, with a long period of Edinburgh steadied any home nerves which might have been fraying when Boffellli slotted a slowing-down penalty from in front of the posts.
Edinburgh: E Boffelli; D Hoyland; M Currie (C Dean 48), J Lang, W Goosen; B Kinghorn (C Savala 13) , B Vellacott; P Schoeman (B Venter 62), S McInally (T Cruse 3), W Nel (A Williams 62), G Young (M Sykes 57), G Gilchrist, J Ritchie, L Crosbie (B Muncaster 68), V Mata.
Castres: J Dumora (T Larregain 53); M Laveau, A Zeghdar, A Seguret, A Bouzerand; B Botica, J Blanc (R Kockott, 62); Q Walcker (L Guerois-Galisson 53), P Colonna (B Humbert 51), A Azar (A Guillamon 53), G Maravat (F Vanverberghe 53), T Hannoyer, B Delaporte, A Usarraga (J Raisuqe, 74), K Kornath (L Guerois-Galisson 38-45, B Cope 53).
Referee: Tom Foley (England).
Edinburgh: Tries: Mata, Penalty Try, Savala, Vellacott; Cons: Boffelli 3; Pen: Boffelli.
Castres: Tries: Colonna, Blanc, Seguret; Con: Botica; Pen: Dumora.
Scoring sequence (Edinburgh): 5-0; 7-0; 7-5; 7-10; 14-10; 14-13 (h-t) 19-13; 21-13; 26-13; 28-13; 28-18; 28-20; 31-20.
Yellow cards –
Castres: Walcker (36mins)