DAVID BARNES @ The DAM Health Stadium
HENRY PYRGOS looked as if he had found a penny but lost a pound immediately after kicking the ball dead to bring to an end this tense Champions Cup encounter played in front of full-house at the DAM Health Stadium. There was a terse exchange of words with the touchline and it wasn’t clear whether the message had got onto the pitch about another score being required in order to secure a home tie in the round of 16. Some of his team-mates punched the air with delight, while a few others seemed to stomp their feet in frustration. But speaking afterwards, head coach Mike Blair insisted that his replacement scrum-half had indeed been following orders.
Both sides had already qualified coming into this last match of the pool stage but all sorts of outcomes were in play as to whether they would play their first knock-out game home or away, and against which opposition. In the event, a six point home win with no four-try bonus points for either team left both Edinburgh and Saracens tied for league points and point differential in Pool A, with the English team being ranked fourth and the Scottish side in fifth because they scored more tries over the four pool matches.
That means Saracens will welcome Ospreys to the StoneX Stadium on the weekend 31st March – 1st April (exact dates and kick-off times still to be confirmed) while Edinburgh face the much trickier task of an away match against Leicester Tigers.
“We wanted them to kick it off,” said Blair, when asked about the tense finale. “We made that call. You don’t always get these things right but our view was that we had a yellow card [with Sam Skinner in the sin-bin], we were playing into a stiff breeze and we had no momentum in our attack.
“We felt Saracens had the momentum in the last 10 minutes. The decision was that … we had won three of our four Champions Cup games and beating Saracens, who had only lost one of their last 16 games, would give us a boost.
“We would have loved a home game, but we felt the odds were stacked against us. We cashed in. We were aware of the situation and although we didn’t work out the exact scenario of having the same points and differential, we are comfortable taking the win.
“Playing a European tie, a knockout game, at Leicester is brilliant for the club,” added Blair, highlighting that these are the sort of big occasions Scottish rugby should revel in, before he indicated that his real frustration from this game was his team’s failure to capitalise on Saracens losing two players to yellow-cards within a three-minute window midway though the first half.
“There is still a huge amount to learn,” he acknowledged. “I thought we showed good intent there, but didn’t have the accuracy in that period and it could have been crucial.”
But, generally, he was pretty satisfied with his team’s efforts against the dominant side in English rugby at the moment, which was their third win on the bounce after a sticky November and December during which time they managed just one victory from six matches.
“This period of 10 games has been brutal,” he reflected. “With the injuries we’ve had and the fixture list and six-day turnarounds, this has been a really difficult period for the club. We’ve come out with three wins in the Champions Cup, which is great. Yes, we could have done better in other bits, but this is a great example that when we are switched on we can beat any team in Europe.”
Meanwhile, there was controversy surrounding those first half Saracens yellow-cardings. Firstly because they both high tackles resulted in head-on-head contact and could easily have been judged as red-card offences, and secondly because England hooker Jamie George was deemed fit to return to the field after his 10 minutes in the sin-bin but was then withdrawn permanently from the contest at half-time by the independent match doctor
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall. “It appears that Jamie passed his HIA and someone has had a further look at it and thought it better that he were withdrawn from the game. And, of course, that’s the right decision.”
George is now a doubt for England’s Six Nations opener against Scotland, with just 13-days to get through the graduated return to play protocols before that 4th February clash.
“We started the game really poorly; passive and lost,” McCall added. “Strangely enough, when we were down to 13 men, we showed what we should have been like with 15 men – that was really good. Our fight and our effort was unbelievable when down to 13.
“If you come away from home and give away 19 penalties – I think it was – then you’re not going to win many matches.
“I’m not sure why we were as passive defensively as we were today – because it’s not like us.”
Edinburgh started brightly and barged their way into a third minute lead by kicking a penalty to the corner then battling through several phases on the Saracens line before hooker Dave Cherry picked up from the base of a ruck and powered over.
Blair Kinghorn added the conversion and then nudged the home side further ahead when he sent home a penalty from directly in front of the posts just three minutes later, after George was guilty of a high challenge on Pierre Schoeman (this wasn’t the offence he was sin-binned for).
Saracens bounced back with an Alex Goode penalty after his forwards had splintered the Edinburgh scrum, but Edinburgh got the benefit of doubt when the next set-piece hit the deck, prompting another period on the ascendancy for the home team.
The visitors then lost George when he failed to lower himself as he challenged Luke Crosbie and ended up clashing heads with the Edinburgh flanker.
Kinghorn somehow missed what should have been a ‘gimme’ penalty but Edinburgh kept their foot on the gas, and Saracens were reduced to 13 men when tight-head prop Marco Riccioni concussed himself and picked up a yellow with his high challenge on Grant Gilchrist.
Edinburgh worked hard to extend their lead during this period with a two man advantage and it looked at one point like Jamie Ritchie had powered under the posts, but a video replay highlighted that the Scotland skipper had the ball knocked from his grasp as he dived for the line.
Having survived that onslaught, Saracens bounced back with a second Goode penalty following another collapsed Edinburgh scrum, making it 10-6 at the break, which was an astonishingly tight margin given that Edinburgh had dominated territory and commanded 71 percent os possession during this period.
The home team finished the first half bombarding the Saracens try-line, but once again the visiting team’s heroic defence refused to give an inch.
Edinburgh edged further ahead at the start of the second half when Kinghorn fired home a ruck penalty, but they then coughed up two kickable penalties, with Goode missing the first from near halfway before slotting the second to, once again, pull the deficit back to just four points.
When Maro Itoje was the third visiting player to see yellow for a cynical offside which prevented Pyrgos from moving quick-ball from the base of an attacking ruck, Edinburgh kicked to the corner and man-of-the-match Schoeman powered over from the line-out maul, with Kinghorn adding the conversion.
However, another penalty attempt, from near halfway, caught in the wind and dropped short this time.
As you would expect, Saracens fought right to the end, and Edinburgh lost Skinner to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul near his own line. The hosts managed to hold out for a few more minutes, but eventually cracked when a long passage of play from the guests eventually led to Billy Vunipola sending Ben Earl over on the right.
It wasn’t enough to nick an away win, but did achieve Saracens primary goal for this match, of a home draw in the next round. A bittersweet outcome for both teams.
Edinburgh: H Immelman; J Blain (W Goosen 56), M Bennett, J Lang, B Kinghorn; C Savala, B Vellacott (H Pyrgos 51); P Schoeman, D Cherry, W Nel, S Skinner, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie (N Haining, 55), L Crosbie, V Mata.
Saracens: E Daly (A Lewington. 46); M Malins (C Judge 29-34), A Lozowski, N Tompkins, S Maitland; A Goode, I van Zyl (A Davies 56); R Hislop (E Mawi 59), J George (K Pifeleti 40), M Riccioni (C Judge 34), M Itoje, H Tizard (N Isiekwe 56), A Christie (K Pifeleti 29-34, T Dab 70), B Earl, W Vunipola.
Yellow card –
Edinburgh: Skinner (71mins)
Saracens: George (21mins), Riccioni (24mins), Itoje (59mins).