STADE FRANCAIS 33
JOB done – just. It was a close-run thing, the lead changed hands a number of times, and the result was in doubt right up until the final whistle, but at the death Edinburgh got the victory they needed to ensure they will have a home quarter-final in the Challenge Cup.
Had they lost, all sorts of permutations meant they would still be in with a chance of going into the knockout stages either as Pool 4 winners or as one of the three best runners-up from the five groups, but Richard Cockerill had called on them to keep it simple and qualify at the first time of asking. They had to fight all the way to do that – somewhat dourly in the first, but with increasing conviction and tempo in the second – and showed commendable courage to battle through against a Stade Francais side who were on top physically for much of the contest.
If Jules Plisson was the single most influential player on the field, not only because of his 18 points with the boot but also thanks to his orchestration of the Stade offence, the key moment belonged to Junior Rasolea. The Edinburgh centre was only in the starting line-up as a replacement for Chris Dean, who was injured during the warm-up; but he was a forceful presence throughout, and crucially was in the right place at the right time to get what, at least once Blair Kinghorn added the conversion, proved to be the winning try.
“I thought we could probably have managed the territory a little bit better,” Cockerill conceded after seeing his side hang on at the death to their one-point lead. “We’re trying to get a balance of our game – we want to play rugby, and I thought we played some good rugby tonight against a good side. We’ll learn the lesson that against good teams you have to manage the territory better and kick more smartly. We put ourselves into a bit of trouble at times.
“But it’s a great game to win and learn lessons from, because they’re a good side – they actually turned up and played tonight. They were physical, they picked a good team, and they looked like they meant business.
“I was pleased with the result. We can play a lot better, but I’m delighted. To go behind three times, to come back into it, we can learn some lessons about controlling the game. But also I’m delighted for the players to keep their composure, get themselves a foothold back in the game, and create opportunities to win the game.
“We could have lost it, but we worked hard enough and we put ourselves in a position to win the game. We did it against Glasgow, we did it tonight: it’s not all luck – we worked bloody hard for that.”
Stade Francais, who won the tournament on this ground last season when they defeated Greig Laidlaw’s Gloucester in the final, threw everything into the pursuit of a win that would have given them the chance to win the pool. Now it looks like their hopes of qualifying have gone, although Edinburgh can still expect a demanding battle when the teams meet again in Paris next Saturday.
Edinburgh took a sixth-minute lead through a Sam Hidalgo-Clyne penalty, but Jules Plisson levelled for Stade a couple of minutes later with a longer-range award, then put them ahead with another three-pointer after quarter of an hour. The match had yet to settle into any real pattern as the Frenchmen succeeded in disrupting Edinburgh’s attempts to mount patient attacks, but one assault was halted illegally, allowing Hidalgo-Clyne to nudge his team ahead again with a penalty from the 10-metre line.
Blair Kinghorn came close to stretching the lead with a break down the left that was stopped just short of the try line, and the full-back’s run galvanised Edinburgh into raising their tempo. Stade’s increasing difficulties in containing the home side were laid bare when Jonathan Danty was yellow-carded for obstruction at the breakdown, and Hidalgo-Clyne was on target again with another penalty.
Edinburgh pressed for most of the 10 minutes in which they were a man up, but were kept at bay by a well-organised defence. That pattern continued once Danty was back on the field, but with the clock having gone past the 40 minutes, another offence allowed Hidalgo-Clyne to score his fourth successful penalty.
After barely figuring as an attacking force in the first half, the visitors started strongly in the second. Plisson’s third penalty took them back to within three points a minute or so after the restart, and then No 8 Sekou Macalou grabbed the first try of the game, forcing his way over the line from short range after patient approach work. Plisson’s conversion made it 12-16, and for the first time it looked as if Stade were close to taking control of the game. Hamish Watson had other ideas, however, and within two minutes had Edinburgh back in front as he grabbed a loose ball and raced to the line from more than 30 metres out. Hidalgo-Clyne again did the job with the boot, and Edinburgh had a three-point lead again.
It had been a tame game up to that point, Danty’s sinbinning notwithstanding, but quarter of an hour into the second half Magnus Bradbury got involved in a lengthy off-the-ball tussle with a couple of opponents and several others on both sides joined in before order was restored. The back-row forward was deemed to have been the prime offender, and from 40 metres out, and close to the left touchline, Plisson made it 19-19.
Worse soon followed for Edinburgh as Stade went back on the attack from the restart and Vuidravuwalu Waisea had the power to reach the line after a rapid midfield break. Plisson’s two points put Stade seven ahead, and again there was a sense that one more score from the visitors would put the game beyond Edinburgh’s grasp.
Again, however, the riposte was immediate. This time it was Jaco van der Walt with the break, and, like Watson, before him, the stand-off just had the legs to outstrip the defence and run in from more than 30 metres. With Hidalgo-Clyne off the field, however, the No 10 attempted the conversion himself, but missed to leave Edinburgh two points short.
There was still quarter of an hour to play at that point, and only four more had elapsed when a penalty for offside gave Cockerill’s team the chance to regain the lead. Van der Walt took it from right in front of the postds and some 30 metres out, and this time the South African was on target. Unfortunately after such a tightly fought contest in which both defences had excelled, Edinburgh let their concentration lapse and within two minutes were behind again as replacement hooker Craig Burden sailed through a yawning gap and Plisson added two more points to his tally.
But all was not lost. With four minutes to go, Edinburgh kicked a penalty to touch. They drove the lineout, Stade offended, they repeated the process, Stade offended again. As the referee played advantage, Nathan Fowles lobbed a ball over the top, and Rasolea won the chase to touch down in-goal. Blair Kinghorn’s conversion put Edinburgh back in the lead, and although there was a late scare when Fowles kicked away possession inside the final minute, Stade’s hopes of a last-gasp winner ended when they offended while on the attack.
Edinburgh: B Kinghorn; D Hoyland, M Bennett, J Rasolea, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, S Hidalgo-Clyne; R Sutherland, S McInally, M McCallum, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, H Watson, V Mata. Substitutes: N Cochrane, M Shields, K Bryce, F McKenzie, J Ritchie, N Fowles, D Graham, J Johnstone.
Stade Français: T Ensor; R Martial, W Vuidravuwalu, J Danty, J Arias; J Plisson, C McLeod; H van der Merwe, L Panis, P Alo-Emile, P Gabrillagues, A Flanquart, M de Giovanni, M Ugena, S Macalou. Substitutes: C Burden, Z Zhvania, G Melikidze, S Cerqueira, B Meïte, C Daguin, S Geraghty, J Yobo.
Scorers: Edinburgh: Tries: Watson, Van der Walt, Rasolea. Cons: Hidalgo-Clyne, Kinghorn. Pens: Hidalgo-Clyne 4, Van der Walt.
Stade Francais: Tries: Macalou, Waisea, Burden. Cons: Plisson 3. Pens: Plisson 4.
Scoring sequence: 3-0, 3-3, 3-6, 6-6, 9-6, 12-6 half-time, 12-9, 12-14, 12-16, 17-16, 19-16, 19-19, 19-24, 19-26, 24-26, 27-26, 27-31, 27-33, 32-33, 34-33.
Yellow cards: Danty (Stade Francais).
Referee: T Foley (England).