Ulster v Edinburgh: Mike Blair’s two-year reign ends in defeat

Bright start in Belfast by the visitors is undone as Ulster's John Cooney takes control of the contest to steer home side to second in table

Edinburgh head coach Mike Blair. Image: Craig Watson ©
Mike Blair saw his Edinburgh side go down to a 12th league defeat of the season. Image: Craig Watson ©

Ulster 28
Edinburgh 14

MIKE BLAIR’s final game as Edinburgh’s head coach ended in a defeat that summed up his difficult second season at the helm. Inspired at times, wayward at others, the visitors put in a patchy display at the Kingspan that was never going to be enough against an Ulster side who got the win they needed to finish the regular URC season in second place. 

After seeing the Stormers beat Benetton earlier in the day, Ulster only needed a four-point win to ensure that second spot, and can now look forward to a home quarter-final in the play-offs – and then a home semi too if they get that far. They fell behind early on to a Darcy Graham try as Edinburgh got off to a flier, but then 25 unanswered points put them firmly in control before a WP Nel touchdown in the dying minutes provided a minor consolation for Blair’s team.

The visitors were forced into two late changes to their squad, with James Lang dropping out of the starting 15 because of illness and back-up scrum-half Ben Vellacott being ruled out by a back injury. Mark Bennett took over at centre from Lang with Charlie Savala coming on to the bench, while Charlie Shiel joined the squad as a replacement for Vellacott.


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That bright beginning by the visitors saw Duhan van der Merwe get the first real scoring chance of the game, but his kick ahead was too strong and the ball went dead. The opening score was only delayed, however, as less than a minute later an excellent break by Bennett put Graham in for his ninth try in 12 URC appearances. Emiliano Boffelli added the conversion.  

In a bruising battle, both teams had to make two changes in the first 20 minutes or so. Edinburgh’s switches saw Savala replace Cammy Hutchison and Stuart McInally come on for what looks certain to be his last game for Edinburgh in place of Dave Cherry.

Edinburgh kept the pressure up for a time, but the Ulster defence won a couple of big turnovers to avoid going further behind, and then the home pack started to get on top as well. A strong maul got Ulster on the front foot, and when the ball spread wide a 1-2 between wingers Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune ended with Stockdale touching down in the right corner. 

John Cooney missed the conversion attempt, but in the last few minutes of the half he put Ulster in front for the first time with a penalty from about 40 metres out. Then, two minutes into time added on, Ulster won a scrum penalty in almost the same position, and the scrum-half was again on target to give his team a four-point lead at the break.

 

Given that the home team had had a strong wind at their backs in the first half, a 7-11 deficit was nothing to worry about too much for Edinburgh. Even so, given their early domination they might well have scored more than one try, and the worry was that they might not get so many scoring chances in the second 40. 

Edinburgh began the second 40 on the front foot, but with barely a minute played Blair Kinghorn floated a pass out wide, and Cooney intercepted then ran in from just inside the visitors’ half. Cooney converted too, and his team were 18-7 ahead.

WP Nel had come on at the break for Luan de Bruin and his scrummaging prowess helped Edinburgh get on top in the set-piece, but mistakes in open play tended to undo the good work in the tight. The attritional struggle was beginning to tell on both sides, but a slower tempo suited the team in the lead. 

A well-judged kick to the corner by Shiel led to an attack in which van der Merwe and Graham combined threateningly, but another slack pass ended the chance.

Ulster were still on top as the game went into the last quarter, and Glen Young was sent to the sin=bin for a cynical infringement as the pressure began to tell on the Edinburgh defence. The home team tapped and went from less than 10 metres out, and eventually Nick Timoney finished off. Cooney chipped over the conversion to make it 25-7.

With time running out, McInally nearly laid on a try for van der Merwe after a burst that was reminiscent of his celebrated 2019 score at Twickenham, but the winger failed to hold the low pass delivered by the hooker as he was tackled just short of the line by Kieran Treadwell. Then Savala touched down, but the score was chalked off for a knock-on as Jamie Ritchie had juggled the ball without being in control of it.

Edinburgh got a consolation at last when Nel scored from close range, and Boffelli added the two points.  Fittingly, however, the last word went to man of the match Cooney, who added a third penalty two mins from time, from 30 metres out in front of the posts.

The scrum-half, who could switch international allegiance from Ireland to Scotland in time for this year’s World Cup, said Ulster would need to up their game again in the play-offs. “We had to win – we knew four points would be enough and we said at half-time that we could do better,” he said after his personal tally of 18 points.

“We need to be better again – I think we’ve got another level and we need to bring it. A home quarter-final is huge. It’s cliched, but we try not to look past the next game.”

That next game for Ulster is in a couple of weeks. Edinburgh have to wait several months for theirs at the end of a campaign that will see them finish in 12th, 13th or 14th place in the 16-team table depending on how results over the rest of this weekend go.

 

Teams –

Ulster: M Lowry (L Marshall 13, H Sheridan 70); R Baloucoune (N Doak 41), J Hume (C Gilroy 16), S Moore, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick (C Reid 72), R Herring (T Stewart 27), J Toomaga-Allen (G Milasinovich 63), A O’Connor (captain, S Carter 57), K Treadwell, D McCann, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. 

Edinburgh: E Boffelli; D Graham, M Bennett (N Sweeney 63), C Hutchison (C Savala 15), D van der Merwe; B Kinghorn, H Pyrgos (C Shiel 50-62, 71); P Schoeman (B Venter 63), D Cherry (S McInally 23), L de Bruin (W Nel 41), G Young, S Skinner, J Ritchie (captain), H Watson (C Boyle 72), V Mata (P Phillips 67). 

Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy).

 

Scorers –

Ulster: Tries: Stockdale, Cooney, Timoney; Cons: Cooney 2. Pens: Cooney 3.

Edinburgh: Tries: Graham, Nel; Cons: Boffelli 2.

Scoring sequence (Ulster first): 0-5; 0-7; 5-7; 8-7; 11-7 (h-t)16-7; 18-7; 23-7; 25-7; 25-12; 25-14; 28-14.

 

Yellow card – 

Edinburgh: Young (64 mins)


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About Stuart Bathgate 1360 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.

8 Comments

  1. Edinburgh need only look along the M8 to see how a complete transformation can occur in a short period of time – Glasgow were fairly hopeless last year and Franco Smith has turned them into a tremendous team in one season (without even recruiting many players).

    Edinburgh have far too much talent to be languishing where they are, and a new coaching setup bringing in a new ethos will hopefully see them propel upwards.

  2. It was a 3 out of 10 season and something felt off right from the London Scottish pre season match. Humbled by Glasgow at Murrayfield, nearly turned over by Zebre at home, some near misses and some big defeats. Edinburgh had some real quality but when you hit international windows or pick up injuries then we struggle as the squad depth just hasn’t been there. Mike Blair’s a good guy and he’ll do well as an attack coach but it shone a light on the need for a seasoned head coach. I’m ever the optimist and I think next year will be a big season…

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  3. Bennett showed sparks of his former self, while Darcy was excellent as ever, just needs a little more composure at key moments – as do his team mates. The Mish is getting back to full strength and the pack put in a shift. Kinghorn had a stinker however and he is no stand-off. Edinburgh do a lot of good stuff and on paper – dare I say it – are significantly more talented than Ulster. But unlike the Northern Irish they lack purpose, cohesion and discipline right now, in other words teamwork and the sheer will to win. It is the story of their season – good in parts, but they just don’t put it together for 80 minutes. Or sometimes they do – taking Saracens’ scalp in the HC – but inexplicably follow it up with rotten performances. Hopefully they will be much better coached next season by a man who knows how to bring that abundance of talent to bear, in the same way Franco has at Glasgow. For starters, they could learn a lot from the Weegies about how to execute a rolling maul that moves forward with menace. Perhaps the biggest reason to be cheerful is the imminent arrival of a top-notch stand-off to lead their line, for what a gift from the Gods Healy is likely to be. Munster must be kicking themselves, for I simply don’t believe they have two better tens than him. Which brings us back to Blair. Too good to leave out, but the 10, 11, 14 and 15 slots are likely all taken for next year. It has ben a season best forgotten and time to focus ahead with the arrival of a new broom. Just the small matter of a World Cup to get out of the way first for some of these lads and hopefully they will be keen to make amends.

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  4. Has Boff sigrned for next year? If he has, where do you play him if BK is at FB with the Little ‘n’ Large show on the wings? Healey kicking at 10 really starts to create competition in that backline (cos you can bench the Boff) which hopefully starts to bring out their best.

    • Might find we play Boff at Full back to have one safe pair of hands as bomb disposal. It’s a real shame we couldn’t hang on to Immelmann as he probably offered the best overall combination of security, power and attack.
      But EB will remain important for us as Healy won’t be on the field all the time with possible Scotland squad absences too. EB to try out at 10 experiment anybody?

    • Leave BK on the bench, or leave him out.
      Can’t see why so many think he’s a good player, when I’m holding my breath each time he has the ball waiting for his next blunder. He is great with the ball in hand and rampaging up an empty field. Simply not good enough otherwise.
      Hopefully the new coach will put a stop to this folly once and for all.

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  5. A frustrating finish to the season where we played well at times and were well in the game at half time until we hit the self destruct button several times in the 2nd half. i thought the forwards went well and what a difference WP made to the scrum when he came – thank goodness we get another year out of him. Skinner, Watson, Ritchie and MacInally were all great.

    This sums us up, with decent forwards but behind the pack it was a back line lacking fluency and control. Your never going to win games when you end up with a midfield of Kinghorn, Savala and Sweeney. i know there were a few injuries but with 2 of the best wings in the game we need to get them more involved. The interception he threw for Cooneys try was one of the worst ever. You could see Cooney was amongst the Edinburgh back line yet he thew it straight to hime as if he hadn’t seen him. That turned the game.

    I’m afraid my support for Blair at stand-off has run its course and whilst Ive supported playing him there in the absence of anyone better he needs to play at fullback his best position. I really hope Healy will provide the fluency and control we need when he arrives next season and we will still need another decent centre with Hutchison moving on to give us some depth in the backs.

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    • Typical Edinburgh- start very well, lovely Graham try from Bennett assist, then couple of chances to increase the lead with Ulster struggling. IMPLODE – horrendous Kinghorn pass just after half time the semimal point in the game. The Kinghorn to 10 thing may well be at least part of why Edinburgh have had such a terrible time of it, very good player but will never be a 10. I reckon VDW has been very harshly treated. Healy should’ve been signed with immediate effect last year.
      Hutchison adds/added much need physicality to the midfield but maybe his injury record has led to his departure.
      DeBruin simply not good enough, Nel made such a difference.
      Need to recruit a 2nd 5/8 with a bit of beef.

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