January 13 2003
On a numbingly cold evening in Edinburgh, London Irish conceded three tries in the last eight minutes to lose a game they had led for most of the previous 75.
Edinburgh Gunners 32 London Irish 25
The outcome, in terms of qualification for the next stage of the European Cup, had been settled long before then – on 7th December 2002 to be precise.
In the build up to the game there had been much talk about whether we would score six or so tries to keep us in with a mathematical shout of qualification.
This was always going to be a tall order against a side including players like Blackadder, Taylor and Murray, and whose results this season include an away win in Ulster and a 38 point triumph over Llanelli.
For most travellers therefore the journey to Edinburgh was made in hope, and expectation of a good ‘Craic’.
The journey itself seemed go smoothly for all concerned. However the preparations for the match did not.
“We are a performance based side” said a spokesman for the Craic Academy “and it is important we get our preparations right.”
“Unfortunately, from talking to people, it is clear that too many of them have forgotten to bring their lucky pants, socks, hats, ear-rings, shirts etc. This sort of basic error makes it very difficult to get the right result in a game”.
After the usual pre-match build-up in various hostelries and eating establishments around Edinburgh, the Craic Academy began to assemble in a packed Murrayfield.
We then realised that the game was not actually being played in the Hotel and had to trek across the road to the impressive, but largely empty, Stadium. With drums, horns, balloons and songs the travellers made sure the team knew we were there.
The game got underway and a bright start from London Irish promised well. After a spell of pressure we were awarded a penalty for offside that Tofty dispatched from 35 metres to open the scoring in the third minute.
Edinburgh 0 London Irish 3
The debate about whether you take penalty kicks or try to score tries is one that was to exercise the travelling fans both during and after the game. But perhaps more on that later.
After some further promising but ultimately unsuccessful raids by the Irish three-quarters the Gunners began to come more into the game.
It was around this time that we noticed that the Referee was adopting what could be described as a ‘relaxed attitude’ to the subject of offside at rucks. With a high class Edinburgh back row of Blackadder, Taylor and Leslie to take advantage, it became increasingly difficult for Irish to gain quick and secure ball at the breakdowns.
After a period of thrust and counter-thrust between the two sides, Irish conceded a penalty for coming in from the side at a ruck. Brendan Laney, at the start of a near faultless display of kicking ineptitude, dispatched his kick at goal several metres wide of the far upright.
He followed this up moments later by kicking out on the full from his own 10 metre line and his error was compounded when Edinburgh were penalised for handling in a ruck. With 14 minutes on the clock Tofty nailed the penalty from 35 metres.
Edinburgh 0 London Irish 6
Almost immediately a series of errors from Irish handed the initiative back to Edinburgh. Firstly Paul Gustard launched an ambitious 30 metre forward pass across his own 22, then from the resulting scrum the Irish forwards conceded a free kick for driving too soon. A quickly taken tap saw Edinburgh surge forward only to be held up over the line in the corner. At the resulting 5 metre scrum Mike Worsley was penalised for turning in and Laney kicked the penalty to touch (even he could not miss from there) and another penalty soon followed as Irish pulled down the ensuing maul. Faced with a challenging 15-metre kick straight in front of the posts Laney somehow kept his nerve and his technique to notch the 3 points.
So with 19 minutes played the scoreboard read:
Edinburgh 3 London Irish 6
The game then became increasingly less structured as the referee seemed to abandon all interest in what was going on. His innovative use of the ‘one bounce, one hand’ rule as a charging Edinburgh player re-gathered his own knock-on was one particularly memorable moment during this passage of play.
After 28 minutes an injured Darren Edwards was replaced by Hentie Martens who was soon introduced to the character building experience of trying to prise ruck ball from the hands of the Edinburgh locks while surrounded by their back row. With the Irish back row trying to match their opponents in preventing release of the ball this period of the match can best be described as ‘scrappy’.
Eventually the Referee decided that he was getting cold and that perhaps he should start to take an interest. He therefore had a stern word with Paul Gustard, who no doubt promised to give his words due attention.
After one passage of scrappy play led to an Irish scrum for a knock on, the Irish forwards were able to demolish their Edinburgh counterparts who were penalised. Tofty calmly lobbed over the penalty from the 10-metre line and with 33 minutes gone the scoreboard read
Edinburgh 3 London Irish 9
However the extended advantage was short lived. After kicking ahead on half way Chris Sheasby collapsed in a heap in the Edinburgh half. The Gunners returned the ball with interest and after a passage of play had taken the ball to the Irish line, Simon Taylor was able to take advantage of the absence of his opposite number and dive over for the score.
With his confidence unaffected by his successful penalty kick, Laney thumped the conversion well wide of the left-hand upright from about 20 metres to leave the score
Edinburgh 8 London Irish 9
At this stage Barry Everritt replaced the injured Justin Bishop and the Irish back line was reorganised with Everitt coming it at fly-half, Tofty dropping to full back and Michael Horak moving to the left wing.
As the clock ran down at the end of the half there was just time for Tofty to miss a difficult penalty chance from near half-way before the first period ended with the score unchanged.
London Irish pressed at the start of the second half and forced a penalty for offside in the backs. Tofty chipped the penalty over from 25 metres to widen the gap to
Edinburgh 8 London Irish 12
With Rob Hardwick now on for Simon Halford the Irish forwards continued to trouble the Edinburgh pack in the scrum. However behind the pack the Irish defence was a pale shadow of it performance against the Saints.
Instead of hunting for targets as they had last week, the backs and flankers seemed to ‘hang off’ in a static flat line while the Edinburgh backs began to work loops and cut-backs from deep, and to use their momentum to break the gain line.
From one such attack Edinburgh forced a penalty in the Irish 22 that they ran and their backs and forwards combined to set up the hugely influential Todd Blackadder for a try by the posts.
Remarkably Brendan Laney even managed to miss this conversion (perhaps it was Glenn De Laney in the Edinburgh No.10 shirt). However the try was enough to put Edinburgh ahead for the first time in the game
Edinburgh 13 London Irish 12
The game restarted with Hatley and Kirke replacing Worsley and Drotske in the Irish front row. Almost immediately Edinburgh were penalised for preventing release. Tofty knocked over an impressive kick from 40 metres to restore the lead with 15 minutes of the second half played.
Edinburgh 13 London Irish 15
By now the Referee had really got into the game and when, a few minutes later, Nathan Hines stretched out an arm to prevent release of the ball, the yellow card was shown. With 20 minutes left Tofty knocked over the penalty from in front to stretch the lead to
Edinburgh 13 London Irish 18
With their one-man advantage the Irish forwards now began to push the Edinburgh pack around the park. After one rolling maul had been pulled down the penalty was kicked to the corner. The ball was safely gathered and the Irish pack trundled over the Edinburgh line for a score that the announcer awarded to Chris Sheasby but the Irish fans (and Glenn Delaney) awarded to Glenn Delaney. Tofty converted and for the first time in the game Irish had a bit of breathing space at
Edinburgh 13 London Irish 25
A few moments later saw one of the key moments of the match. Irish kicked another penalty to touch, collected the ball at the line out and went for a repeat of their previous score. But the drive never got going as Edinburgh wrestled the ball free and launched a charge back up the field.
With Hines still off the field and the Edinburgh players under pressure we now saw the unwelcome sight of Edinburgh players holding up imaginary yellow cards at every infringement.
This gesturing reached a level of farce with one Edinburgh player gesticulating with his ‘card’ while the referee was signalling a scrum for a handling error.
Nevertheless the arm waving seemed to have its desired effect when Paul Sackey was (incorrectly) penalised for offside at a ruck and then (harshly) sin-binned for his (first) persistent offence.
With Sackey off and Hines now back on, Edinburgh looked to capitalise on their fortunate numerical advantage. A sustained period of pressure reduced the Irish defence to disarray and Laney was able to stroll through the chaos to touch down and then convert from near the posts.
So with 75 minutes on the clock the lead had closed to
Edinburgh 20 London Irish 25
With their lead suddenly under threat Irish launched an attack that ended when a drop goal attempt from Barry Everitt dropped short. Edinburgh immediately counter-attacked and forced a penalty for offside in the backs.
With 42 minutes of the second half now gone, Paul Sackey returned to try to shore up the creaking Irish defence. He was helpless however as Edinburgh ran the penalty and forced an overload on the Irish left. Sharman (I think) grabbed the ball from a host of other potential scorers to touch down. The stunned Irish fans breathed a small sigh of relief as the conversion missed and with seconds remaining the scores were tied at
Edinburgh 25 London Irish 25
Such relief was short-lived. From the re-start Edinburgh attacked again and, as we watched in horror, Simon Taylor sprinted 40 metres through a non-existent defence before setting up Todd Blackadder (I think) for the winning score. To rub salt in the wounds Sharman then converted from the touchline with the final kick of the match. The 250 or so London Irish supporters in the 4,451 crowd were left gazing uncomprehendingly at a final scoreboard than somehow now read
Edinburgh 32 London Irish 25
With the game over, and anxious to avoid hypothermia, the dazed travellers made their way back to the Murrayfield Hotel and from there to Scruffy Murphys and all points east.
Looking back with the benefit of a few days hindsight, what would I say about the match.
1) Hats off to Edinburgh for their fight back. It looked to me that their players’ attitude was “if you want to win on our patch you’ll have to fight for it ‘til the final whistle”. Our players seemed to totally switch off with about 5 minutes to go and all three tries in that period were scored with embarrassing ease.
2) I thought Todd Blackadder and Simon Taylor were outstanding for Edinburgh. Whisper it quietly, but IMHO Taylor outclassed the great O’Sheasby, and I cannot remember seeing that happen very often.
3) Should we have kicked for touch or run penalties instead of taking goal kicks? My feeling is that in the first half we never really got sufficient momentum, clean possession or penalties to breach the Edinburgh defence. In other words, even if we had run the three kickable penalties awarded to us in the first half, I saw little in this match to suggest that we would have scored a try from those attacks.
Should we have tried? A lot of people will say ‘Yes’, but if the attacks had failed would people now be saying we should have kicked the penalties, built a lead and forced Edinburgh to take risks? Who knows?
In the second half it was clear that we were playing for the win rather than for tries, and we do need to recognise that achieving a win in Edinburgh in January is not a ‘gimme’. However, to take that approach and then throw the result away in a state of utter chaos is difficult to understand.
4) I think this game again highlighted that, aside from occasional flashes of individual brilliance, our back line is not playing well enough to construct tries against a set defence.
5) I don’t know whether it was lack of focus, disruption because of injuries or some other reason, but any one of 4 or 5 Edinburgh players could have scored each of their 5 tries, such was the disintegration of our defence. The contrast with the cohesion and ferocity of the Northampton performance was huge.
6) The result apart, this was another hugely enjoyable ‘World Tour’ in fantastic company. Where to next season I wonder?