NO-ONE needs or wants a reminder of how infuriatingly inconsistent Edinburgh used to be, but we got one anyway in this extraordinary match. Up by 13 points at one stage, and 10 clear at half-time, Richard Cockerill’s team wilted in slow motion after the break, first going behind, then letting even the chance of a losing bonus point elude them, before finally allowing Zebre a five-point victory with a fourth try at the death.
All the old vices which the head coach has worked so hard to eradicate were back with a vengeance: a lack of conviction, a dearth of direction, and in the end an inability to construct a coherent team performance. Some of those failings are understandable in the case of the young players who made their debut in this PRO14 match, yet it was some of the most experienced players who were most guilty. A dreadful error by Dougie Fife gifted Zebre the try that put them into the lead for the first time and a gift of an interception from Simon Hickey wrapped up the win, but in the final analysis there has to be collective responsibility for such a woeful display.
This game was always going to be a test of character after the highs of beating Toulon in the Champions Cup last week, and it was a test that Edinburgh failed big time. Their superiority for much of the first half suggested that they had travelled to Parma’s Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi with the right attitude, but when serious questions began to be asked of them, they scratched their heads and looked bamboozled or blank.
Not for the first time, the flimsiness of their replacements bench was exposed. That is no slight on those substitutes who were making their debut, and who in most if not all cases came on after the momentum had swung decisively against their side. The problem has recurred this season no matter if Cockerill has had a full squad available to him or, as here, has been without some of his key Scotland internationals.
There will always be some squad members whose job is to come off the bench and shore up a winning position, but every team also needs replacements who can come on and make a difference when the chips are down. And Cockerill has virtually none.
Fitness does not appear to be a problem, and yet the statistics show that Edinburgh score far fewer points – and concede a lot more – in the second half compared to the first. Here, they scored three and conceded 31.
Were there any positives?
Well, every player worth his salt will learn from this, and the new boys will have received an object lesson in what it takes to win at this level. Perhaps most impressively, Pierre Schoeman, looking hungry after his four-match suspension, dominated the scrum and also put in a power of work around the breakdown in the first half. By contrast, Ross Ford looked off the pace in the loose on several occasions, and the lineout was less than secure.
Overall, however, the Edinburgh pack had the upper hand throughout the first half, and had they managed to turn their possession into just a few more points, Zebre might have felt that a comeback was beyond them. The Italians deserve considerable credit, of course, not only for making that comeback, but also for their well-drilled defence that restricted Edinburgh to relatively few points.
For example, when Simon Hickey gave the visitors the lead with a seventh-minute penalty, it arose only after a period of constant pressure had failed to produce a breakthrough. Edinburgh did, however, find a chink in Zebre’s armour midway through the half, with Darcy Graham scoring what turned out to be their only try after Chris Dean had jinked inside to beat the first line of defence. Hickey converted, then added a penalty five minutes later after Zebre were caught trying to run the ball from deep.
The New Zealander should have added another not long before half-time as Zebre’s indiscipline began to increase, but he hooked the ball wide. Given his success rate is around 95 per cent, Hickey can be forgiven the odd miss, but curiously, if there was a single turning point in the game, this was it. Instead of facing a 16-0 half-time deficit, Zebre finally got off the mark through a Carlo Canna penalty a couple of minutes before the interval to make it 13-3.
Within two minutes of the restart, that 10-point lead was down to three. Schoeman appeared to have stopped a drive at source, but, fearing he was about to be pinged for offside, he halted. He was not the only one either, and the widespread hesitation allowed lock David Sisi to race through a static defence for a try which Canna converted.
The one positive thing that could be said for that piece of slackness was that it concentrated Edinburgh’s minds. They reimposed themselves quickly, winning a penalty which Hickey this time turned into points, but an illegal steal by Bill Mata allowed Canna to cut the gap to three again.
The closer they got, the more confident Zebre became, and it was no surprise when they took the lead for the first time after 55 minutes. A kick ahead by Canna should have been fielded by Fife, but instead the winger stood there and watched the ball bounce. Gabriele di Giulio did not need a second invitation, and he gathered and ran in the score, which Canna converted.
After apparently being in control of proceedings, Edinburgh had it all to do as the last 15 minutes began. Rather than showing a real desire to win and getting on top of the arm-wrestle, however, they became passive, soaking up pressure from opponents who looked increasingly energetic.
The killer blow came eight minutes from time, and again arose from an avoidable error, as Hickey sent out a long pass that was easily picked off by Canna. The stand-off ran in unopposed, then added the conversion.
Nearly two and a half minutes into time added on, Zebre got their fourth try, one which by that stage no-one could have begrudged them. After penalties had twice been kicked to touch, captain Tommaso Castello took matters into his own hands, going on a looping run that not a single opponent seemed able to stop. Canna’s conversion completed the embarrassment, and surely began a long and painful inquest by Edinburgh into this demoralising, damaging defeat.
Zebre: F Brummer; M Bellini, G Bisegni, T Castello, G di Giulio; C Canna, G Palazzani; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini, D Sisi, G Biagi, J Bianchi, J Meyer, R Giammarioli. Subs: L Luus, D Rimpelli, G Zilocchi, L Krumov, A Tauyavuca, R Raffaele, T Boni, P Balekana.
Edinburgh: D Fife; D Graham, J Johnstone, C Dean, D van der Merwe; S Hickey, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, R Ford, S Berghan, J Hodgson, C Hunter-Hill, L Hamilton, L Crosbie, V Mata. Subs: D Cherry, R Sutherland, P Ceccarelli, C Atkinson, M Mason, S Kennedy, J Baggott, J Socino.
Zebre: Tries: Sisi, Di Giulio, Canna, Castello. Cons: Canna 4. Pens: Canna 2.
Edinburgh: Try: Graham. Con: Hickey. Pens: Hickey 3.
Scoring sequence (Zebre first): 0-3, 0-8, 0-10, 0-13, 3-13 half-time, 8-13, 10-13, 10-16, 13-16, 18-16, 20-16, 25-16, 27-16, 32-16, 34-16.
Referee: A Brace (Ireland).