Five-star Edinburgh Rugby entered uncharted Heineken Rugby Cup territory when a 20-19 win over London Irish at the Madejski Stadium, Reading, marked the first occasion they had begun Europe’s premier club tournament with an away win.
A draw in Ulster back in 1998 was Edinburgh’s previous best opening performance away from home and, putting the achievement further into perspective, only twice in 16 tournament entries have Edinburgh won in England – against Northampton in 2000 and Leeds four years later.
As if that wasn’t satisfying enough, London Irish are currently lying third in England’s Premiership but proved unable to thwart a visiting performance that was both disciplined – particularly in the nerve jangling closing moments – and enterprising as shown by the fact the Scots outscored their hosts in try terms 2:1.
The first of those touchdowns came from winger Lee Jones who, in front of watching Scotland coach Andy Robinson, showed spacial awareness to squeeze in at the corner and suggest he might well be the answer to the national side’s scoring famine, especially as his Heineken strike rate stands at two touchdowns from four appearances or 50 per cent.
Jones’ previous try in the competition came last December in front of empty stands when Castres were encountered behind closed doors due to heavy snowfalls which had deluged surrounding walkways and forced a 24 hour delay.
How appropriate then that his latest effort came almost in front of the group of Edinburgh fans in a crowd of 6217 but, typically, Jones was keeping feet on the ground afterwards.
“Last week against Treviso in the Rabo Direct Pro 12 League was my first away win with Edinburgh so confidence levels were high and we just wanted to follow it up.
“To get back-to-back away wins is outstanding and particularly so when one involves the Heineken Cup.
“I was actually shouting for a pass earlier but Nick (de Luca) made the right decision to put the ball to Tim (Visser) because I was well marked.”
It was then that Jones revealed the striker’s instinctive talent, and he added: “I was always going to run an inside line because there is a high percentage chance you are going to get an offload.
“When Tim passed I just came on to the ball and managed to get inside the defence.”
Jones’ try converted from the touchline by 19-year-old Harry Leonard – though with such wizardry for one so young it could have been Harry Potter in the No. 10 jersey – enabled Edinburgh to overcome the loss of two early penalties to Tom Homer. But by the interval Ross Samson had crossed for a converted try and they trailed 10-16, Leonard having claimed a three pointer.
Worse was to follow when Homer made it 19-10 but Stuart McInally’s first try of his Edinburgh career on his fourth cup appearance and second start saw substitute Greig Laidlaw convert to make it ‘game on’.
Such was Edinburgh’s staying power that Visser looked unfortunate to be denied by the video official when he stretched out a left arm to claim a touchdown and while Laidlaw slotted a penalty when play was recalled for an off-the-ball incident which earned Exiles’ Shontayne Hape a yellow card the ‘one that got away’ was to remain a talking point.
“I thought Tim had scored but the TMO (Eric Gauzins of France) had a good look at it. Looking back that’s the way things go and it was just good we got that penalty and managed to hold out,” said Jones, who paid tribute to Leonard and two other tournament debutants – Matt Scott and Grant Gilchrist.
“Our young boys did really well especially for the first game in the Heineken Cup which is a big step up.
“We were targeting this as the first game of the tournament with a win the best we could hope for. Against Racing Metro at home on Friday we need to back it up.
“I think we did well to create the chance for Visser’s ‘try’ that wasn’t and we were in their half and 22 a lot towards the end of the game helped by the control we got from half back including when Greig Laidlaw came on (for Mike Blair) and kept things calm. Going away from home you are always going to have to score tries though because we knew it was going to be close.
“We need to approach the Racing game expecting them to do the same and while it is too early to talk about qualification from the group we do have the best possible start helped by our forwards keeping the ball when we had to play it tight.
“What was crucial was the way we kept our discipline and defence intact when they had a lot of possession in the last five minutes.”
Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley, in his first venture into the Heineken Cup at any level, was left to reflect on how different things were compared to when he called the shots for Connacht at the Madejski in 2009 in a second tier Amlin Trophy.
That match ended in an ignominious 75-5 defeat though to Bradley’s credit his team immediately bounced back to hammer Dax in their concluding group match.
With Racing Metro next up on Friday Bradley will be hoping to do likewise against French opposition and he is keeping fingers crossed that flanker Dave Denton will shake off a head knock sustained in what might be generously termed a collision with Shontayne Hape and which saw him retire after 27 minutes to be replaced by Sean Cox. It would be naive to think that citings might not follow what was a rugged, physical, encounter and Bradley hinted at it, saying: “Dave Denton was a bit dazed and we took him off as a precaution. I think it was a shoulder to the head (blow). I’ll have a look at it.
“Sean Cox was taken out off the ball at one stage (earning the yellow card for Hape who will therefore escape citing for that incident). Rugby is a physical game. You have incidents.
“Either side could have won. With six minutes to go until two minutes to go and no penalty or try conceded was outstanding defence from Edinburgh.
“Those sort of things make tournaments and they make seasons. Down 19-10 at one stage we had to fight hard and we did that and kept shape.
“After this win I’m sure there will be hype. The reality of the competition is there are only six games in the pool stage. We have a home match against Racing who lost their home match (to Cardiff) and have to win to stay in the competition. So, it will be a battle this week.”
Not so much hype as fact, actually. And after this most gallant and ground breaking performance Edinburgh’s record home Euro attendance of 7721 deserves to be seriously challenged at the turnstiles, surely?
London Irish: Try: Samson. Conversion: Homer. Penalties: Homer (4).
Edinburgh: Tries: Jones, McInally. Conversions: Leonard, Laidlaw. Penalties: Leonard, Laidlaw.
London Irish: Homer, Ansbro, Shingler, Hape, Thompstone, Bowden (captain), Samson (Hodgson, 67), Corisiero (Lahiff, 54), Buckland (Blaney, 70), Ion (Rautenbach, 54), Kennedy, Garvey (Sanford, 61), Evans, Sinclair, Gibson (Thorpe, 61).
Edinburgh: Thompson, Jones, De Luca, Scott, Visser, Leonard, Blair (Laidlaw, 47), Jacobsen, Ford (captain), Cross (Niven, 21-23), Lozada, Gilchrist, Denton (Cox, 27), McInally, Rennie (Grant, 47).
Referee: R Poite (France).