THE bigger the game, the finer the margin can be between victory and defeat, and for the third time in as many knockout matches under Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh have fallen on the wrong side of that margin.
They were decidedly second best in their 6-20 defeat by Cardiff in last season’s Challenge Cup quarter-final almost exactly a year ago, but then in the PRO14 play-offs in May they came within a whisker of upsetting Munster, going down 20-16. They lost by four points again to the Irish province this afternoon in the Champions Cup quarter-final, suggesting that, at the very least, they are not losing ground on their toughest of opponents.
Richard Cockerill knows that something still needs to change if honourable defeat is to be turned into victory at this level, but the head coach does not think that will demand a radical rethink from his players. Yes, a little bit more accuracy in decision-making could help, but so might other external factors.
In other words, while he is ready to dish out very vocal criticism of his team when he thinks it is merited, Cockerill was in no mood to lambast them after this 13-17 defeat at BT Murrayfield. “I think it was a great game of rugby,” he said. “It was two teams that played very well, it was one hell of a contest, and tiny, tiny margins decide these things. It’s a penalty that gets reversed, a lineout that gets overthrown and bounces their way, and in the ensuing play they score.
“We had opportunities to score in the first half we didn’t take. We had some massive moments in the game defending our own line. So I’m proud of the performance, but clearly disappointed with the end result.
“They’re a good team, we’re a good team, someone’s got to lose. Even for their first try I thought their player knocked it on – it’s tiny margins from officiating. There’s all those things – there are a million things that can happen in a game.
“Munster are a good side but so are we – two very good teams going very hard at the game and it was a great contest. So I’m very proud of how we performed: Munster are a great team and we’re now able to compete at that level.
“Did they deserve to win? Well, they won, so well done to them. We’ve got to learn how to win these tight battles, and we didn’t do it today.
“We could have easily won that game, and we’ve got to find that belief. I think we have to a point, but in the tightest of moments we’ve got to be better.”
One of the most crucial moments in the game came when Pierre Schoeman pushed Tadgh Beirne, who had just been penalised for an offence on Jaco van der Walt. The referee reversed his decision, and from being under heavy pressure, Munster went downfield and scored the decisive try. Cockerill mentioned the incident, but insisted he was not going to lambast his loosehead prop.
“It’s the difference in the referee, it’s the bounce of the ball, it’s a bit of discipline from Pierre Schoeman at the end and you’re kicking a goal and you’re six points up and you win the game,” he continued. “That’s life. I’m not going to criticise Pierre, because he’s a committed fellow and he does what he does and I’ll back him to the hilt. But those are the falls sometimes. They’re a good team and they find a way to win and we’ve got to do the same.
“I’ve got nothing but praise for the team, because they played very well. We came the wrong side of the result, but I’m not sure anybody would say that if it had gone the other way we didn’t deserve to win either. It could have gone either way very easily.
“We’ve just got to keep working at our game. We’re two years in to being well coached and having a good process and a good environment. Munster are probably four or five decades into that. So we’ve just got to keep working hard and we’ve got to better next year and keep doing that, and three, four, five, six, seven years in you end up in a place where you’ve had these experiences and you use them to try and win these types of games.”
Munster coach Johann van Graan agreed with his opposite number’s assessment that, in time, Edinburgh will make the breakthrough and discover the missing ingredient needed to win big matches like this. “It was an incredible game of rugby between two sides who didn’t know how to give up,” he said.
“A lot of credit to Cockers and Edinburgh, a brilliant performance from their side. They tested us literally from the first second. They’re an incredible rugby team: they’re going to go places.
“I said to Cockers afterwards it was a fantastic performance from his side. He’s instilled a lot of belief here and I respect that.”
Munster now go on to a semi-final against Saracens in the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, while Edinburgh’s season now hangs on their remaining three games in the PRO14, starting next Saturday when they visit Scarlets. Asked if his team would be able to recover from this disappointment in time to compete in the league run-in, Cockerill had no doubt.
“Definitely. And that’s the challenge. We can’t just switch off and go ‘Well, that’s our season’. That’s rubbish. We’ve got to go to Scarlets and win next week, we’ve got to bring Ulster here and win, and we’ve got to go to Glasgow. We’ve got to get on with it. We’ll dust ourselves off, we’ll have a couple of beers tonight and enjoy each other’s company and we’ll get back in on Monday and got a big week next week.”