EDINBURGH were not the first Scottish side to be defeated at the death in Italy, and they are sure not to be the last either.
All losses are frustrating, especially those which are avoidable, and the 28-27 beating by Benetton on Saturday certainly came into that category. Moreover, the result at Treviso’s Stadio Monigo was all the more galling because the home team won with the last kick of the game – a drop-goal from replacement stand-off Leonardo Marin.
But, while Mike Blair’s squad will focus this week on how to rectify what went wrong in the URC round-two match, it is also worth reflecting on how much has gone right in a relatively short period under the new head coach. For a start, they have seven match points out of a possible ten from their first two games in the new tournament – not a negligible haul, for all that they were seconds away from making it a maximum ten. And a more important factor is the manner in which they have accrued those points: not by eking out a boring win here and a dogged defeat there, but by playing some spectacular running rugby.
It has helped that the summer signings have hit the ground running. Scrum-half Ben Vellacott, in particular, has been in sensational form, as he demonstrated once more at the weekend with two first-half tries which were both fine examples of his quick thinking and his speed of execution. Full-back Henry Immelman was admittedly below his best against Benetton, contributing a couple of individual misjudgements to a performance that had far too high an unforced-error count; but he, too, has slotted in smoothly to his new team and to the expansive game plan which Blair espouses.
Above all, though, it is clear that the whole squad has bought into what Blair is trying to do, and there is little doubt that they are heading firmly in the right direction. Having said that, their emphasis post-match was the same as it will undoubtedly be in training this week: cutting down on that error count as quickly as possible.
“We made too many mistakes and we can’t afford to do that again,” was how stand-off Jaco van der Walt put it. “It would have been nice to have kicked the winning goal, but unfortunately it didn’t go my way or the team’s way. We’ll be better next week.”
Van der Walt contributed seven points to his team’s total, from two conversions and a late penalty which briefly put Edinburgh back into the lead. Willem Nel and Stuart McInally, meanwhile, scored the tries which, added to Vellacott’s brace, gave their team a try bonus point to add to another for the narrow defeat.
Having just fallen short on the road, Blair’s team now have two back-to-back home games against South African teams – first the Stormers this Saturday, then the Bulls a week later. After two rounds of games in the URC, the four South African teams have just one win between them – the Lions’ victory at Zebre on the first evening of the new tournament. The Stormers have lost to Benetton and Munster, the Sharks to Munster and Glasgow, the Bulls have been beaten by Leinster and Connacht, and the Lions were beaten by the Scarlets on Friday night after getting their campaign off to that winning start in Parma.
But all four of those teams will soon be strengthened by the return of their Springboks, and of course they will be tougher prospects on their own grounds than on the road. And Van der Walt – born and raised in South Africa, and a former player with the Lions – is convinced that the newcomers should not be written off as also-rans.
“It hasn’t been good for them so far, but you can’t underestimate the South African teams,” he insisted. “They’re good teams with good individual players. They’re just getting used to a new tournament and to the weather as well – obviously in South Africa they get better weather and play expansive rugby. So it’s difficult for them to adjust to this weather to begin with, but it won’t take them long to get used to it and then we’ll see the best of them.”