Edinburgh target Champions Cup berth after limp European exit

Edinburgh's Grant Gilchrist chases down Cardiff's Tomos Williams' box kick. Pic: SNS
Edinburgh's Grant Gilchrist chases down Cardiff's Tomos Williams' box kick. Pic: SNS
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Dreams of Bilbao may have been swept away at a freezing BT Murrayfield on Saturday night, but Edinburgh Rugby are now focusing on a “cup final” this Friday, the result of which they hope will mean the competition they exited is not one they will be returning in next season.

The 20-6 defeat to Cardiff Blues ended their European Challenge Cup hopes at the quarter-final stage and the Capital pro team now want to ensure that, when they return to continental action, it is in the elite Champions Cup.

A long-awaited return to the top table can be secured if they beat Ulster at home in the Guinness Pro14 this weekend and, in so doing, book their place in the play-offs.

For all the obvious disappointment of crashing out of Europe in what was pretty limp fashion after a run of six straight league wins, that play-off spot would be the ideal reward for this most encouraging of seasons under the impressive new tenure of head coach Richard Cockerill.

If Edinburgh were to stumble in their last three games of the regular season, with Scarlets and Glasgow at home to come, they could still have a shot at the Champions Cup through a play-off, but the coach made it clear that he wants it by finishing in that top three and extending the campaign into more knockout rugby.

Lock Grant Gilchrist, who took over the captaincy on Saturday when Fraser McKenzie departed early in the second half, didn’t take too long to cast his eye forward to the huge match against Ulster in four days time.

“Luckily for us the season is still massively alive and we have a cup final for a quarter final place if that makes any sense,” he said in the wake of Saturday’s defeat. “Next weekend is a huge game against Ulster. We will learn from this but have to dust ourselves down and get in as we have a huge week ahead. We cannot dwell on this for too long.”

Edinburgh’s loss to the almost equally in-form Welsh side denied them what would have been a testing away semi-final at French outfit Pau, who will now travel to Cardiff in the last four.

Cockerill was not having the “now we can focus on the league” cliche that often comes after a knockout defeat, insisting that he “hates losing”.

There was disappointment that much of the damage on the night was self-inflicted and that his side hadn’t shown their true selves in front the 7000 crowd. However, Cockerill was philosophical and keen to see his men put things right on Friday.

A Jaco van der Walt penalty had given the hosts an early lead, but they then handed the initiative to the visitors by gifting them two soft tries as Cardiff’s well-executed kicking strategy had Edinburgh in all sorts of bother.

First Nathan Fowles let a Jarrod Evans high ball bounce off his shoulder for flanker Ellis Jenkins and then a Blair Kinghorn fumble led to Blaine Scully crossing.

Van der Walt pulled another penalty back but two penalties from Evans gave the Blues a 14-point cushion they were able to defend, albeit cynically at times.

Kinghorn recovered from his mistake to be Edinburgh’s most potent attacking weapon, making a number of searing breaks. The hosts pushed hard in the closing stages but their best chance to score was scuppered by a deliberate knock on by Jenkins, which earned the tryscorer a yellow card.

Cockerill was frustrated that a series of scrum penalties didn’t end with either “the ref going under the sticks or at least a yellow card for a prop to take them down to 13”.

He accepted the truth, though, that his team were simply good enough on the night with poor passing, handling and indiscipline punctuating the evening thoughout.

The coach also detected some big-match nerves and jitters from his team, though Gilchrist later played that down.

“I don’t think so,” he said when asked if the occasion had got to the players. “Credit to Cardiff. They put us under pressure and at those key times we were a little bit inaccurate.

“We were a little bit clunky with our handling, or we lost a key set-piece at a key moment. In big games like this it hurts, it really costs you. There are lessons for us to learn. We are going to have plenty of opportunities to play these sort of games over the next three weeks are exactly the same for us. All three are massive.”