Edinburgh ACCIES coach Johnny Else heaped praise on the team’s back three and Alex Blair in particular after a 23-17 win at Dundee High which almost certainly banished relegation worries and kept alive hopes of a top-four finish.
Accies sit just outside the RBS Premiership quartet who would be guaranteed a British and Irish Cup place next season but there is all to play for when they visit already relegated Boroughmuir on Saturday secure in the knowledge that it would take a bizarre sequence of results elsewhere to drop them into a play-off with the National League runners-up.
For that Else could have pointed to any number of reasons: from a resilient pack; the astute captaincy of Dan Teague; clinical finishing; sniping scrum-half Alex Black’s vision; the goal-kicking of Ruaridh Bonner on a quagmire pitch, and to the stout defensive line which kept Dundee pinned down.
Significantly, though, while wallowing in the achievement of all 20 squad players, Else was drawn to the counter-attacking of the back three led by a player who, two years ago, was all but written off when Edinburgh Rugby released him on injury grounds.
“The best thing about Alex Blair is that he has come back just wanting to play rugby again and is always doing extra fitness work,” said Else. “There have been setbacks along the way of his return from back and hamstring injuries but Alex has stuck at it and now has three full 80-minute stints at top-team level under his belt.
“I also think Alex is starting to look as if full back is the position for him and his natural counter-attacking style.
“In that back three also containing Nyle Godsmark and Matt Coupar he picks the right lines to run.”
The strongest hint that Blair was recovering self confidence came when he appeared to contemplate a through-the-legs pass before pragmatism prevailed on a day when any sort of clean catch was an achievement.
Added Else: “The back three gelled really well against a really tough team whose back row come at you the whole time.”
It was at stand off against Leinster in Dublin three years ago just after returning from the Commonwealth Games Sevens that Blair, youngest brother of Scotland legend Mike and Scotland A cap David, made his only Edinburgh appearance.
Hopes of emulating at least one of his brothers were high but injuries proved chronic and when he failed to last out his first comeback game this season fears existed he might fade from the scene.
To be fair Simon Cross, the Accies’ head coach who spent the weekend assisting Scotland Under-20s in France, always had faith in Blair’s comeback and stressed the fact, but conditions at muddy Mayfield on Saturday were close to the ultimate test and watched by dad Rob, a former club captain, Alex passed with flying colours.
For starters Blair, now 22, got up to create the overlap which led to second row Tom Drennan crashing over while it was his grubber kick again up the narrow side of a ruck that put Nyle Godsmark in for the try which further cancelled out Richie Hawkins’ early converted touchdown and established a 10-7 lead after 25 minutes.
Accies were never to fall behind after that and in 42 minutes hooker, Michael Liness, a student in Edinburgh, thundered over on a pop-up pass for a third try which opened a gap of ten points with the aid of Bonner’s conversion.
Kickers Bonner and Jack Steele continued to make their craft look simple in appalling conditions and although Danny Levison pulled a try back for Dundee the way the Capital outfit applied a stranglehold once in front was masterly.
Else said: “Our boys just dug it out. They are not the biggest but they fronted up unbelievably well against heavier men on a heavy pitch. By the last 20 minutes we started to get a bit of a shove on in the scrums which was sensational stuff. We’ve just been working hard and it is starting to click.”
Accies had to do it the hard way, too, since they were without four players either on duty with Scotland Under-20s or the clubs’ international team in addition to head coach Cross while Dundee were full strength.
“We are maybe victims of our own success because when one player goes up to the under-20s we have had his replacement impress the Scotland Under-18s. Fortunately our top two teams play the same way so that when players come in to the firsts the patterns are the same.”
Cross will return from France knowing his charges have enhanced a reputation for giving little away as shown by a points against tally fewer than two of the four teams above them in the table.
“Simon works really hard on defence and comes back with loads of ideas picked up when coaching the Scotland Under-20s. Anything can happen next Saturday and we will just concentrate on ourselves in what will be an especially tough game at Boroughmuir considering it will be their last with Fergus Pringle in charge and they’ll want to send him on his way with a win,” said a beaming Else. But by the time Alex Blair gets another 80 minutes in and a season on the Spring sevens circuit I’m confident he will really back firing again.”
And that has to be good news not just for Accies but Scottish rugby in general.
Dundee High: Tries: Hawkins, Levison. Conversions: Steele (2). Penalty: Steele.
Edinburgh Accies: Tries: Drennan, N Godsmark, Liness. Conversion: Bonner. Penalties: Bonner (2).
Dundee High: J Urquhart, A McLean, H Duthie, R Lavery, R Lemon, J Steele, A Dymock. N Dymock (captain), D Russell, A Brown, C Cumming, R Hawkins, D Levison, R McIver, I Wilson. Subs: S Longwell, G Robertson, A Linton, J Morrison, C Bowie.
Edinburgh Accies: A Blair, M Coupar, I Berthinussen, E Campbell, N Godsmark, R Bonner, A Black, D Morrison, M Liness, C Murray, G Campbell, T Drennan, D Teague (captain), C Reid, R Godsmark. Subs: F Rawlinson, R Laughland, A Findlater, R Snape, J Adams.
Referee: D Changleng.