MICHAEL BRADLEY’S Edinburgh squad returned from Dublin soon after the final whistle, nursing the bruises and abject disappointment of coming close but not close enough to a place in the Heineken Cup final.
The Capital outfit are on the verge of joining the second group of seeds for next season’s premier European competition after being knocked out of this year’s event at the semi-final stage as Bradley’s squad could not replicate the forward power and control that had claimed a famous quarter-final win over four-times champions Toulouse at Murrayfield earlier this month and succumbed 22-19 to Ulster, who will meet Leinster in the first all-Irish final at Twickenham on May 19.
However, as Edinburgh coaches and players reflect on setting a new benchmark for Scottish rugby by becoming the first to reach the last four in Europe, Bradley hopes that this will mark the beginning of a new era for the professional game in Scotland. Their hopes would be aided by a better seeding in next season’s tournament. Having been among the fourth and third seeds in recent seasons, they will join Europe’s second seeds if Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon beat Biarritz in the Amlin Challenge Cup Final next month or Stade Francais remain out of the French league’s top six, either of which would promote Edinburgh from 13th to 12th in the European rankings on the back of this season’s success, and into the second pot of seeds for 2012-13. “That would be great if it comes off,” said Bradley. “We have to wait and see what happens, but it would be a nice reward for the efforts this season.”
Edinburgh are preparing for a rise in season ticket sales on the back of this run and expectations will also rise, both at home and abroad. But Bradley is convinced that his team will be even better next season through the quality of young players emerging, the new signings secured with the SRU’s release of £1m in extra player budget (with more targeted next year) and with the experience gained this season. He said: “I think there are fundamentals here that are very strong. There is a crop of players of 22 and under who, if we can keep in the club for a period of time, will be very, very strong competitors in the foreseeable future.
“We have to fortify them with equally-good talent when we don’t have it in our current squad, and that’s the formula going forward. Ulster did it to get to this point. They have four or five lads who they brought in, good quality players – Ruan Pienaar was stunning in his management of the game [on Saturday] – and everyone knows that’s the formula, but we were able to make a statement this season with a lot of the talent we have so if we can reinforce that going forward it’s a good opportunity for us.
“Scottish rugby and Irish rugby kind of mirror each other with cycles, I think, and at the moment we’ve got a very good crop of players and I’m already excited about next year. That’s a good position to be in.
“In the second half Ulster shut us down a little bit more. They stifled our ability to play attacking rugby,” Bradley went on. Ulster got the upper hand in the scrum but we had chances to win the game.”
Edinburgh’s European form has been in stark contrast to their RaboDirect PRO12 performance, where the club sit second from bottom in the table. But they were the first Scottish team ever to reach the last four in Europe’s premier competition. “Edinburgh Rugby has taken a positive step forward,” Bradley said. And while his side has returned to these shores to nurse their wounds, Ulster’s Pedrie Wannenburg is aiming for a dream end to his club career after his try-scoring performance helped secure a famous victory. With Ulster unlikely to qualify for the Rabodirect PRO12 play-offs, Wannenburg’s last match for the province before he moves to France is set to be at Twickenham on May 19.
And the influential Springbok No. 8 is desperate to add European honours to the three Super Rugby titles and five Currie Cups he won with the Bulls in South Africa.
“I am chasing one of my dreams, this is one of my dreams, to win a Heineken Cup final,” Wannenburg said. “I am really looking forward to the final. It’s an amazing feeling for us. Guys have waited 13 years for this opportunity and we are the lucky ones who are going to the final.” Ulster weathered a first-half storm from Edinburgh – they survived the sin-binning of Stefan Terblanche unscathed – before turning the screw after the interval. The Ulster scrum was dominant and that laid the platform for Wannenburg’s try and for man of the match Ruan Pienaar to pull the strings in masterful fashion. The victory was more comprehensive than the final score suggests as Pienaar kicked 17 points as Ulster extinguished Edinburgh’s spirited effort.
Jim Thompson came off the bench to score a consolation try in the final minute.
Leinster made it to the final after holding off a frenzied late onslaught from Clermont Auvergne to win their semi-final 19-15 yesterday.
Flyhalf Jonny Sexton’s accurate boot, five inspired minutes by Rob Kearney and resolute defence helped the twice winners to victory, though Wesley Fofana’s last-ditch stretch for the line and ecstatic celebration left Leinster fans biting their nails. With just four points separating the sides, France international Fofana wheeled away in delight after scoring what he thought was the match-winning try with seconds remaining on the clock.But replays showed he failed to ground the ball properly as he arched his back to touch it down.
Scorers: Ulster: Try: Wannenburg. Conversion: Pienaar. Penalties: Pienaar 5. Edinburgh: Try: Thompson. Con: Laidlaw. Pens: Laidlaw 4
Ulster: S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller (captain), D Tuohy; S Ferris, W Faloon, P Wannenburg. Replacements: P McAllister for Court 77, A Macklin for Fitzpatrick 65, L Stevenson for Ferris 77, R Diack for Faloon 73. Subs not used: N Brady, P Marshall, I Humphreys, A D’Arcy
Edinburgh: T Brown; L Jones, N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw (captain), M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross, G Gilchrist, S Cox, D Denton, R Rennie, N Talei. Replacements: J Thompson for Jones 70, K Traynor for Jacobsen 77, J Gilding for Cross 73, R Grant for Rennie 56. Subs not used: A Kelly, C Leck, P Godman.