RICHARD COCKERILL was generally pretty happy with how this match went. He was frustrated to lose, largely due to the mid-match slump during which time they conceded 31 unanswered points, but was encouraged that his players showed character to fight back from 19 points down early in the second half to have a chance of winning it at the end. And, more importantly, the two British and Irish Lions in his line-up – Hamish Watson and Duhan van der Merwe – emerged from the game unscathed.
The only thing that was bugging him during the post-match press conference was the ‘captain’s challenge’ law trial, which led to Watson being sent to the sin-bin during the first half, and once again caused several tedious stoppages in play meaning that the game lasted just over two hours.
“Get rid of the captain’s challenge,” was the coach’s typically uncompromising take. “It’s a disgraceful thing to use. All you’re doing is getting one team trying to ‘Judas’ the other team to get blokes sent off the field. There’s a TMO, a referee, assistant referees – it’s an absolute shambles.
“It ruins the game. If I don’t say it, who is going to? We’ll all just fanny around and it stays in the game. It’s just not good enough, it’s ridiculous. The officials are there – are we saying we can’t trust the officials? Well, don’t have the referee, we’ll just ref it ourselves and it will be much better fun.
“The game is meant to be built on discipline and respecting the referee, and it just becomes a shambles.”
In terms of the Lions players, there was a scare midway through the second half when van der Merwe received treatment in the pitch for a leg injury, but Cockerill explained afterwards that this was just cramp, with the winger being replaced a few minutes later.
Meanwhile, Watson lasted 74 minutes – minus that 10-minute spell in the sin-bin – before eventually coming off. That pair, along with prop Rory Sutherland – who is days away from being fully fit again following his shoulder injury during the Six Nations – will travel to Jersey next Sunday to join the Lions camp ahead of their pre-tour match against Japan at Murrayfield on 26th June.
“He [Duhan] is fine, there’s nothing wrong with him,” said Cockerill. “He had a bit of cramp because he’s obviously not played a huge amount in the last few weeks, so it was best just to get him off the field, but he’s 100 percent and will be available to do whatever he needs to do.
“I’m really pleased with the performance,” he added. “I thought we started really well then the two yellow cards were tough – Hamish Watson was actually trying to play the ball backwards and it came off his hand – and it took the referee a long time to get his yellow card out in the second half when we were camped on their line.”
Cockerill also had words of praise for the three teenagers in his side – hooker Patrick Harrison, No8 Ben Muncaster and full-back Harry Paterson – while centre Cammy Hutchison (a Super6 player with Heriot’s) made an impact and took his try well on his debut off the bench, and back-row Harri Morris (Southern Knights) had a nervous few minutes while a ruck clear-out was reviewed by the TMO but lived to tell the tale and threw himself into the game as a late replacement for Watson.
“It was a show of character, the way we started but also the way we came back into the game,” the coach concluded.“I’m really pretty gutted – we could have won it, should have won it, then you end up with a last-minute penalty that costs you.”
The visitors dominated possession during the first five minutes and eventually managed to create enough space on the left for van der Merwe to charge home for his 32nd try for Edinburgh in his 67th appearance for the club, and remarkably hist first this season. That settled home nerves, and four minutes later they extended their lead to 12 points when Jamie Ritchie fed James Johnstone on a wicked angle, and the centre timed his pass well to send Blair Kinghorn in for a try which the stand-off converted himself.
And almost straight from the restart, Harrison and Watson carried hard to get the hosts right back on the front foot, but then an overthrown line-out allowed Ulster off the hook, and they took full advantage – sweeping the length of the field to create an excellent try scored James Hume. That score signalled a major momentum shift.
Watson was harshly sent to the sinbin after a ‘captain’s challenge’ for a deliberate knock-on, and Ulster turned the screw with Iain Henderson rumbling over two minutes later. Iain Madigan’s conversion edged the visitors into a two-point lead.
To make matters worse for Edinburgh, WP Nel was sent to the sin-bin – reducing the home side to 13 men – for collapsing the maul leading up to that score.
The hosts initially responded well, monopolising possession during the first nine minutes of their time with a numerical disadvantage, but they couldn’t sustain it and fell further behind when Ulster launched an attack from deep which featured Hume and David Shanahan breaking some tired tackles before Ian McCloskey touched down.
The bonus point was wrapped up by Ulster just before half time when hooker Adam McBurney – who will move to Edinburgh during the summer – peeled off a line-out drive and bustled over.
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Kinghorn missed a long-range penalty early in the second half, and Edinburgh soon fell further behind when some slick inter-play saw Ulster full-back Rob Lyttle go over wide on the right for try number five.
Edinburgh were staring down the barrel so it is to their credit that they managed to get a grip of the match, and they spent a long spell camped on Ulster’s line before eventually getting their reward when Pierre Schoeman barrelled over – at the third time of asking – after a succession of close-range tap penalties.
By this time Ulster were down to 13 men, with Michael Lowry sinbinned in the 64th minute for playing the ball from an offside position and Nick Timoney following him four minutes later for a no-arms tackle.
Edinburgh clearly sensed they had an outside chance to salvage something and with just over five minutes to go, Hutchison marked his debut at this level by motoring under the posts to set up a conversion which made it a five-point game.
Then, with just a few minutes to go, a sweeping attack sent Eroni Sau in for a try which squared it. There was a nervous wait for Edinburgh, and for Morris when a ‘captain’s challenge’ required the ref and TMO to look at whether there had been shoulder-on-head contact at a ruck earlier in the move. The video evidence showed that this was the case, but referee Whitehouse ruled that there was nothing the Edinburgh player could have done different because Ulster’s Michael Lowry had dipped just before contact.
Kinghorn missed the tricky conversion which left it all-square as the game moved into overtime, and a draw would have been a fair result, but then George Taylor handed Ulster an opportunity by committing a late tackle, and Madigan stepped forward to coolly send home the tricky three points from 40-odd yards out and wide the right.
Not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things because this game was a dead-rubber with neither side capable of reaching the Rainbow Cup final.
Ulster’s season is now over, while Edinburgh will bring the curtain down on their 2020-21 campaign with a trip to Llanelli to take on Scarlets next Sunday.
Edinburgh: H Paterson (N Chamberlain 71); E Sau, J Johnstone, G Taylor, D van der Merwe (S Berghan 27-31, C Hutchison 56); B Kinghorn, C Shiel (H Pyrgos 66); B Venter (P Schoeman 48), P Harrison (M Willemse 48), W Nel (S Berghan 48), M Sykes, B Toolis (M Kunavula 61), J Ritchie, H Watson (H Morris 73mins), B Muncaster.
Ulster: R Lyttle; M Faddes (M Lowry 40), J Hume, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; I Madigan (B Burns 40-66), D Shanahan (A Mathewson 66); K McCall (A Warwick 46), A McBurney (R Herring 46), M Moore (T O’Toole 46), A O’Connor (K Treadwell 60), I Henderson, Marcus Rea , Matthew Rea (G Jones 52), N Timoney.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Edinburgh: Tries: van der Merwe, Kinghorn, Schoeman, Hutchison, Sau; Cons: Kinghorn 3.
Ulster: Tries: Hume, Henderson, McCloskey, McBurney, Lyttle; Cons: Madigan 3; Pen: Madigan.
Scoring sequence (Edinburgh first): 5-0; 10-0; 12-0; 12-5; 12-7; 12-12; 12-14; 12-19; 12-21; 12-26 (h-t) 12-31; 17-31; 19-31; 24-31; 26-31; 31-31; 31-34.
Yellow cards –
Edinburgh: Watson (17mins), Nel (19mins)
Ulster: Lowry (64mins), Timoney (68mins)