Allan Massie: Edinburgh were taught a painful lesson but will they learn from it?

The truth was that when Ulster came back at them, Richard Cockerill’s side cracked and crumbled

Saturday, 12th September 2020, 12:10 pm
Richard Cockerill gave an honest assessment of Edinburgh's Pro14 semi-final loss to Ulster. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Are the French daft? Or are they perhaps braver and more reasonable than we are? I ask because, even though there are new spikes and clusters of Covid-19 as there are here in the UK, the first round of this new season’s Top 14 was not only played last weekend, but played before these strange and all but forgotten people called spectators.

There were 10,000 of them at the Stade Marcel Michelin to watch Clermont Auvergne beat Toulouse 33-30. Other crowds were smaller – only 4,500 for Agen’s match with Castres – and clearly the number everywhere was restricted, but it was still a far cry from the 700 lonely souls admitted to Murrayfield for the second Glasgow-Edinburgh match the previous week.

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It would seem the French authorities have judged that if precautions are taken, the level of risk is low enough to be acceptable. Here on the other hand we have Mr Johnson prohibiting gatherings of more than six people, and Ms Sturgeon faithfully following in his timorous footsteps. Well, we shall see. The French will look rash if relaxation leads to a big spike in the transmission of the virus in France; Mr Johnson and Ms Sturgeon like bossy nannies if it doesn’t.

Brooding on French courage and Anglo-Scottish feebleness or, if you prefer, on Gallic rashness and British prudence, at least serves as a distraction from the disappointment of Edinburgh’s loss to Ulster. It was of course the manner of the defeat, rather than the mere result, which grates. Here you had a team, packed with experienced Scottish internationals, 19-7 ahead with 20 minutes to go, and surrendering that lead to lose 19-22. It is always painful to lose a big match, but it is far more painful to do so when you had the winning of the game, and when you have lost because you made handling errors and errors of judgment when the pressure came on. Richard Cockerill was characteristically honest: “we got what we deserved – when the pressure came on some of our guys made really poor decisions.” You might excuse that in a young and inexperienced team, but neither adjective can be applied to Edinburgh. The truth was that when Ulster came back at them, Edinburgh cracked and crumbled.

To add a footnote, more bitter than sweet: a few days later the Guinness Pro14 announced its “dream team of the season”. 
Edinburgh supplied six of the XV.
Admittedly a criterion for eligibility required a player to have made at least eight starts in league matches, which excluded a number of stars, so that Leinster, for instance, supplied only three members of the Dream XV.

Well, you can learn more from defeat than from victory. “We have had no end of a lesson; it will do us no end of good”. That was Kipling’s judgment on the performance of the British Army in the Second Boer War. Edinburgh and especially their Scotland players had just such a lesson last Saturday. The question now is: can they learn from it? Their supporters and all who follow and support Scotland are tired of coming away from a match muttering “we could have won”. It was like that in Dublin in the first match of the Six Nations this year and like that when we lost to Japan in the World Cup. It was like that when Glasgow lost what proved to be a vital match at home against La Rochelle in the European Champion’s Cup in December, and it was undoubtedly like that but worse at Murrayfield on Saturday, but this time the fans in front of their television sets and not making their way sorrowfully and angrily from the ground were surely saying “we should have won, but we let it slip, threw it away”...

On a different note, that was a horrible and horribly dangerous tackle which has led to England’s captain Owen Farrell being suspended for five matches. It was the kind of tackle which the authorities are rightly trying to expel from the game. But this won’t be done until players are once again taught to tackle low; any player who, like Farrell last weekend, remains on his feet while making a tackle will sometimes, and indeed quite often, go dangerously high, making hard contact with the ball-carrier’s head or neck.

Timely punishment will reduce the number of dangerous high tackles, but players will continue
to tackle while remaining on their feet as long as the law relating to the tackle and what follows it makes above-the-waist tackling more profitable than going low round hips, knees or ankles.

Finally Farrell’s term of suspension was cut from ten to five matches because of his previous record – fair enough, for he hasn’t been red-carded before; because he apologised: which is both sensible and easy; and because of testimonials given him by Mark McCall, his coach at Saracens and Eddie Jones, the England coach, both, one assumes, saying what a fine chap he is...

It’s hard to see why such testimonials should carry any weight. In the immortal words, slightly adapted, of Miss Mandy Rice-Davies “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

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