Edinburgh v Saracens: Mike Blair happy to settle for narrow win

Margin of victory against English rugby's dominant club is not enough to secure a home draw in Champions Cup round of 16

Jamie George was concussed and saw yellow after failing to lower his tackle height against Luke Crosbie. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Jamie George was concussed and saw yellow after failing to lower his tackle height against Luke Crosbie. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

Edinburgh 20

Saracens 14

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.

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“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.


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.

Referee: L Cayre (France).


Scorers –

Edinburgh: Tries: Cherry, Schoeman; Con: Kinghorn 2;  Pen: Kinghorn 2.

Saracens: Try: Earl; Pens: Goode 3.

Scoring sequence (Edinburgh first): 5-0; 7-0; 10-0; 10-3; 10-6 (h-t) 13-6; 13-9; 18-9; 20-9; 20-14.


Yellow card –

Edinburgh: Skinner (71mins)

Saracens: George (21mins), Riccioni (24mins), Itoje (59mins).


Attendance: 7,774

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About David Barnes 3995 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.


  1. One man in the bin, almost last play of the game, with 7 v 8 forwards and Saracens about to put everything into attacking the scrum,… up steps WP Nel, to do a monster job, holding the initial surge and then bending his opponent in to kill any second surge. Most important play? Perhaps. (A scrum penalty, a kick towards our 5 yard line and who knows.)

  2. It’s a very good win which we all would have taken pre match. But the inability to finish to convert pressure into points very worrying. Again.
    On the finish, nonsense excuses from Blair. Edin had a chance for a home tie. They should have gone for it. Had they tries and failed so what. Had they tried and lost they would still have had a losing bonus point, level on points with quin’s but still above them on points difference. Same outcome.

  3. I’m actually finding it quite annoying that the so-called error at the end is overshadowing the fact Edinburgh deservedly beat one of the very top teams in Europe. On 80 mins they were a man down, playing into the wind and nowhere near close enough for a drop-goal or a non-Bofelli/Van Der Walt penalty, so it would have been risky to play on – getting turned over could have led to Sarries going up the other end and stealing it, so I don’t mind the fact Pyrgos kicked it out.

    The lack of efficiency when they were down to 13 players and Kinghorn’s kicking (from hand and tee) letting Saracens off the hook is far more of a disappointment to me.

    Winning the game is going to be such a massive confidence boost for the team and fans, and that shouldn’t be lost sight of. Ospreys beat Leicester remember, so the draw isn’t as bad as some are making out.

  4. A home game would’ve been nice but a wins a win, especially against a team like Sarries. We could’ve kept playing at the end, got turned over and lost the match. Winning builds confidence and momentum and what that’s shown us is we’re actually good enough. Hopefully we get a few fans making the trip down to Leicester. You’ve got to earn the right to go wide but surely the space is out wide when they’re down to 13 players. We need to get our heads up in that situation. It was an immense physical performance where we bullied the team which is normally the bully. Feeling a little more optimistic for the 6 nations and beyond.

  5. Slightly mixed emotions – a great win against one of Europes top sides although could and should have been a bigger win which would have got us a top 4 place. A rousing performance from the pack with everyone of the forwards outstanding. I thought our discipline was outstanding in not giving away too many daft penalties and Saracens were the ones giving away the penalties which allowed us to control territory.

    We left a couple of tries out there in the 1st half. I sit directly behind the posts and watched close up as we hammered away on the 5m line time and time again. Saracens are a great defensive side but we do need to find a way to get over from here its a recurring problem. Malcolm summarises the problem well. We keep just picking and going to the same side and often very slowly so allow the defence to set. Leinster are the masters of variation and if you watch the Stormers they often use the scrum half to distribute with short flat passes close to the line which allows more width to be put on the ball with runners hitting gaps rather than running into big defenders. Scotland have the same problem so its an area that needs serious work. The backs didn’t create too much with a few breaks not quite being finished but perhaps not a day for them and with our x-factor back 3 all missing they did pretty well. I have been very supportive of Kinghorn but really should have nailed that kick from in front in the 1st half and a very poor kick dead when going for touch in the 1st half when they went down to 13 men – key moments that you cant get away with.

    As said by others if Edinburgh could play with this intensity every week they would be much further up the URC table. We have nothing to fear in going to Leicester. I am more worried about next week against the Sharks – with the 6 Nations looming – how many players will Edinburgh get back. The Sharks will be fully loaded as they have no 6 Nations to worry about and are already over here after the Harlequins game. If its an Edinburgh 2nd team we could get crushed by them – another anomaly of the URC with the SA teams having massive advantage at this time of year.

    • Not sure if I can see Edinburgh getting anybody back for Saturday as they all look likely to be in the Scotland 23.Pity as would have been a great match up with Sunday’s team against the likes of Kolisi,Ethebeth and Am

  6. The word bittersweet was invented for this match and it defies belief to think that the players were somehow unaware – or not made aware – of the required margin of victory to play at home in the last 16. And if a seven-point advantage represents a par score for a sin-binning, then the home team’s failure to register any when two went off must count as a double bogey. Had the chance been taken, it would have underlined Edinburgh’s undoubted superiority over the English aristocrats by a more impressive – and ultimately decisive – margin. Nonetheless, this was a great scalp to take, a major momentum changer and proof positive that the boys can compete at the top level – even without their stellar back-three. Loved the front-row chat Nel was giving his opposite number, while the rampaging form of Matta, Schoeman and Crosbie was particularly impressive. The latter two should offer a very physical challenge to the cabbage patch brutes come the Calcutta Cup. And as was so obvious, they don’t like it up ’em!

    • I don’t think we could have done much more at the end – we were a man down and in our own half – just ran the risk of giving away another try. The opportunity to win more handsomely was blown in the first half partly when they were down to 13 and we should have had at least another try.

  7. It is difficult to know where to start, commending the excellent performances of some of the 80+ minute efforts from the players Garry mentions in his Comment, I’d add Mata and Blain showed some potential. Then we had the contrasting lack of officiating.
    Let’s start with both the Yellow Cards, one moment the Referee commenting Head to Head and no mitigation regarding Jamie George, normally enough for Red, but no he ‘Bottled it’, then followed moments later with an identical situation with Riccioni, marginally less obvious as a permanent early Bath: but!
    That is the problem with World Rugby who have tampered with the Laws for 30+ years frequently without any concept of unintended consequences hence the mess we are in at the present time: you can’t have consistency with the officiating allowing ‘Grey’ areas, some of the discussions between TMO, Ref and Touch Judge are more akin to the officiating of Ice Dancing or Synchronised Swimming, ‘what do you think, well perhaps, maybe I thought, did he dip’: what a mess and yet myopic to put in at scrum and to a lesser extent lines out.
    This was followed by what can only be described as every effort from Saracens to run down the Card-clock deficit, fine, totally understandable from their point of view but the Officiating should identify that and ‘stop the clock’. The final penalty for Saracens was according to replay and Commentary Team something else the TMO or line-judge missed.
    As for 70+% possession versus 13 they should have been out of sight, greedy kicks to touch going dead, a lack of a top class goal kicker and a couple of top class wingers, in some respects Edinburgh got away with it and with a full compliment of players they should feel confident going into the next fixture whether it was home or away.

    • Ps: I forgot to award Vunipola ‘B’ with the award for the most Petulant performance of a Player sulking from being dropped from the International Squad. In any event was an extra 10m enough for a repeated offence he had thrown his toys out of the pram a couple of times prior, which reminds me Itoje repeatedly off his feet. Like Don I am a bit more confident of the Feb 4th result.

    • Re the refereeing of not tackling low enough A similar situation occurred in Glasgow match v Bath. It seems to be that if the tackler remains fairly passive ie stands still head up and tackles incoming player – yellow card . But if tackler is also moving forward with force head up it’s a red . Well I can see a a tackler moving into a fairly static player with ball and clash occurring. But I have never seen two players running at speed into each other head up unless it an accident . To my mind therefore the question that should be asked is “ did the tackler have the opportunity ( time and space ) to tackle low “ if yes and heads clash red card regardless of the fact the player just stood tall with little force on his part . The force is coming from the incoming player with ball even if the tackler takes the bigger hit . It’s a bit like a car driver coming out of junction stopping being hit by oncoming car and then saying I was not moving I did not cause the force . Off course you did by standing there . It’s just poor refereeing.

      • Completely agree, it should be the level of impact, not whether ‘he didn’t move forward’ .. total nonsense.

        Also agree with the point above, Sarries were all over the ball during the rucks, esp Itoje when we were on their line and we eventually lost out. Ref told him repeatedly to let go and he just ignored him and got away with it … poor refereeing.

  8. Admittedly I only saw brief highlights but did Edinburgh not pass up on several extremely kickable penalties in repeated attempts to rough it over the line? If you need the points, take the points, surely?

  9. Played very much like Scotland, far too many missed opportunities that cost us in the end. Some outstanding individual performances.

  10. Excellent intensity and mental calmness won the day but we could easily have scored 4 tries and won by 30 pts . As I have said before it’s not lack of accuracy that it is lack of team method/ technique close to the line that is the issue. All the teams that convert try opportunities consistently from this range protect the ball better with close support players and then recycle fast . You can see it’s second nature to them practised over and over again . Leinster are the masters at it and they have now brought in creative offloads and running patterns just wide of ruck . Edinburgh just pound away and to often a player goes on own the moment this happens error/ turnover occur . Fixing this issue has to be number one priority . To end on a positive note many excellent moments and outstanding atmosphere. Well done everyone . Oh and if I was a Saracen’s supporter I would be very worried watched them home and away live they are a team on the slide .

    • Sarries are sitting pretty at the top of the e engish league. Think it shows competitiveness of English league in general is waning.

  11. If only Edinburgh played with that intensity and intent every game. Our attack never really got going out wide, so it is difficult to say that we played well, but there can be no faulting the effort this week. Schoeman, Cherry, Skinner and Crosbie all excellent and would be in my Scotland XV as a result.

    BUT in the last three months we have only really seen that intensity against Sarries. I guess that is why I am quite happy to be going to Leicester in the next round rather than hosting Ospreys – there will be no problem getting up for that game and Ospreys look like they are coming onto a game much more than Leicester do.

    Let’s see if they can prove me wrong by putting in the same kind of effort in their URC games between now and then. If they can do that, I’m sure the attack shape will eventually fall into place and we could be very, very dangerous when we our starting back 3 become available.

  12. Listening to Radio Scotland and reading this article, it appears that the Edinburgh players didn’t know what they needed to do to get a home tie. If the decision to kick out was based ignorance rather than an informed decision to kick it out then that is incredibly poor.

  13. All that and away to Leicester – we needed just one more point – when will Boff be able to start? Amazing defence by both teams we deserved the win but should have crossed the whitewash more often – couldn’t agree more with Blair we had no momentum in our attack. Gutsy win but should have been so much more. Even although Leicester are at sixes and sevens that will be a really tough ask.

  14. If they can beat Saracens at home and run them close away, they can beat Leicester. I didn’t like the sound of a tie against Munster, which was one of the alternatives offered by Andrew Cotter.

    Nel put in a good shift, which is encouraging should he be needed in the 6Nations, and overall it was a good team performance against the unbeaten leaders of the Gallagher Premiership.


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