STUART BATHGATE @ The DAM Health Stadium
IT WAS close, scarily so in moments, but it was also magnificent entertainment. Edinburgh will want to have a tighter grip on many of their forthcoming URC matches than they enjoyed here, but, after being under heavy pressure early on, they can only be pleased with the spirited manner of their response, which ensured Mike Blair got a win to celebrate his first competitive match in charge of the team.
“That was a brilliant atmosphere,” the head coach said after the bonus-point victory. “If this had been on the big pitch at BT Murrayfield it would have been lost and we would not have had that atmosphere. It was harder for Scarlets trying to get back into the game when you have our crowd in the background cheering the knock-ons, cheering the turnovers or cheering our good play. It was great to have such a fantastic crowd.
“I will enjoy that game much more now that it is over. There are so many emotions. There was brilliant stuff in it and stuff we will be able to learn from for next week. I loved the attitude from the players like Jamie Ritchie and Connor Boyle trying to lift the crowd and bring them into it. That was very important as we rose to that.”
Edinburgh had to make a late alteration to their starting line-up, bringing Jack Blain straight into the squad on the left wing after Damian Hoyland failed a fitness test on a knee knock. Scarlets head coach Dwayne Peel, who like Blair was taking charge of his team competitively for the first time, was also forced into a change for the same reason, with Tom Price stepping up from the bench to take over from Sam Lousi. Shaun Evans came onto the bench.
Edinburgh got the game off to an inauspicious start when Jamie Ritchie knocked on straight from the Scarlets’ kick-off, but the pack won the set piece and cleared the danger. They were soon under more sustained pressure, however, and conceded a penalty on the edge of their 22, only for Dan Jones to send his kick off the outside of an upright.
Scarlets were sure they had scored a few minutes later when centre Scott Williams touched down from a Steff Evans pass, but the try was chalked off for a forward pass. An attack initiated by Henry Immelman was the first sign of a real threat from Edinburgh, but just as Darcy Graham broke free and was about to touch down, that move too was called back by referee Andrew Brace for an earlier offence.
At last, after a dozen minutes of relentless high-tempo play, we got our first score. Scarlets had been probing consistently down their left flank in search of a gap, and they found it when Scotland international Blade Thomson came into the line and laid on the scoring pass for Steff Evans. Jones’s conversion was wide, but Scarlets attacked again minutes later and got Aaron Shingler over the line, but the lock was held up by Pierre Schoeman.
Edinburgh had hardly been out of their own half up to that point, but they steadily began to exert more pressure, and took the lead after 25 minutes. Solid work by Bill Mata set up the platform, and a one-two between Kinghorn and centre Mark Bennett ended with the stand-off crossing by the posts. Kinghorn converted too, putting his side in front when they might easily have been behind by a score or two.
The score inspired the home team to up the tempo, and they soon stretched their lead, with Bennett this time touching down. The pack took the ball close to the line following a lineout, and when Vellacott delivered an excellent flat pass to him, Bennett sliced through two defenders to score with ease. Kinghorn’s conversion made it 14-5.
A Dan Jones penalty was a reminder that Scarlets were still an attacking force, but Edinburgh then claimed try No 3 in the last minute of the half. The hyper-active Vellacott snaffled the ball from the base of a ruck, Mata took it on, and when he was halted, Graham seized possession and burst free of three would-be tacklers to score. Kinghorn’s conversion attempt was off target this time, but a 19-8 half-time lead was far better than Edinburgh could have expected after their difficult opening quarter.
Scarlets thought they had got a try back early in the second half when Steff Evans slid in at the left corner under Graham’s tackle, but a replay showed the winger had put a foot in touch before he got the ball down. There were no doubts after 50 minutes, however, when Kieran Hardy raced through a gap between Bennett and Pierre Schoeman to touch down. Dan Jones’ conversion made it a four-point game.
It was an ominous moment for Edinburgh, but they kept their cool and got the bonus-point try just before the hour. Vellacott’s constant alertness was the key to the score as the pack pressed forwards from a lineout, and when he popped up a pass to Graham close to the breakdown, the winger sped through a broken defence, leaving Kinghorn a simple conversion.
It was such a fast and flowing game that an 11-point lead never looked like being enough, and with 15 minutes to play it was cut to four points again. Johnny McNicholl finished off after captain Jon Davies had run a good line out wide, and substitute Sam Costelow added the conversion.
Van der Walt came on for Kinghorn as Edinburgh tried to close the match down. The last few minutes were nervy, but Blair’s team held on to get their season off to an excellent start.
Scorers: Edinburgh: Tries: Kinghorn, Bennett, Graham 2. Cons: Kinghorn 3.
Scarlets: Tries: Steff Evans, Hardy, McNicholl. Cons: Jones, Costelow. Pen: Jones.
Scoring sequence (Edinburgh first): 0-5, 5-5, 7-5, 12-5, 14-5, 14-8, 19-8 half-time, 19-13, 19-15, 24-15, 26-15, 26-20, 26-22.
Edinburgh: H Immelman; D Graham, M Bennett, C Hutchison (J Lang 45), J Blain; B Kinghorn (J van der Walt 68), B Vellacott (H Pyrgos 73); P Schoeman, S McInally (D Cherry 60), L Atalifo (W Nel 53), M Sykes (J Hodgson 60), G Gilchrist (captain), J Ritchie, L Crosbie (C Boyle 69), V Mata.
Scarlets: J McNicholl; R Conbeer, J Davies (captain), S Williams, Steff Evans; D Jones (S Costelow 60), K Hardy (D Blacker 60); R Evans (P Price 60), R Elias (M Jones 58), S Lee (W John 53), A Shingler, T Price (T Phillips 53, I Nicholas 73), B Thomson, D Davis (S Evans 73), S Kalamafoni.
Referee: A Brace (Ireland).