IT was confirmed earlier this week that Duncan Weir will move on from Edinburgh at the end of the season, and the 26-year-old stand-off presented the club with the best possible parting gift when he stepped up to the plate and sent home a nerveless drop-goal to clinch this last-gasp victory which catapulted the capital outfit ahead of the opponents and into the play-off placings in Conference B of the Guinness Pro 14.
With six rounds of matches still to be played, there is a long way to go in this campaign, but Edinburgh are now firmly in control of their own destiny; and having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against top class Irish opposition for the second consecutive week, they are entitled to look ahead with optimism.
Edinburgh only had two minutes of being ahead in this match, when Lewis Carmichael’s 62nd minute try and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s conversion briefly edged them into a 14-13 lead, but that score was almost immediately cancelled out by a John Cooney penalty which looked like being enough to secure the vital league points for the Northern Irishman – until Weir’s sensational finale.
The leader of the pack
While Weir’s name will dominate the headlines tomorrow, it is really the pack who should be getting the plaudits for taking the game to their heavier opponents from the first to 80th minute. It was the never-say-die attitude of the likes Viliame Mata, Lewis Carmichael, Neil Cochrane and man-of-the-match Fraser McKenzie which established the field position during those tense last few minutes for the stand-off’s late intervention.
“That was such a tight game which could have gone either way. I think both sides showed a lot of good rugby out there but we’ve got a habit of sticking in there at the moment and that shows the character of this team,” said captain McKenzie afterwards. “We are starting to build that mentality that we stay in games regardless of how much we are under the pump, and then when it comes to the crucial moment we can take our chances.”
“We showed a lot of composure. We blew our chance in the first half – it was about timing of when we pass the ball and when we build the phases – but we showed good patience at the end until the moment when our kicker were able to slot the points.”
“We know this is a big win and last week [against Leinster] was a big win as well, but if you look at this league – Treviso are breathing down our necks, Ulster are a very good side who will bounce back – so we’ll have a good night tonight before refocussing on the Dragons next week, because they won’t be easy either.”
Edinburgh fell behind in the eighth minute when Louis Ludik and Nick Timoney combined to send Cooney in for a well-worked team try, but the visitors didn’t let that upset their rhythm and Viliame Mata came close to striking back for the visitors in the 25th minute when he peeled round the front of a close-range line-out but a foot strayed into touch as he stretched for the line.
Edinburgh continued to pile on the pressure, and twice managed to half charge-down Ulster clearances, but on both occasions the ball didn’t quite bounce their way.
Four minutes later, Mata once again got to within inches of scoring when he picked up at the base of ruck under the shadow of the posts and rumbled towards the line. This time he lost control of the ball in the process of grounding, and Ulster were able to survive for another few minutes – with some excellent, aggressive defence harassing Edinburgh backwards.
Another parting player shines
Edinburgh eventually managed to tie things when Hidalgo-Clyne – another departing player who showed his value to the team – sniffed a gap on the blindside of a ruck ten yards inside his own half and took full advantage with an electrifying 20-yard break, followed by a perfectly weighted grubber-kick ahead for winger Jason Harries to score.
That passage of play delivered a double blow to Ulster. Not only did they lose the try but stand-off Jonny McPhillips – who had been an authoritative figure for the home team – picked up a shoulder injury during the lead-up to the score and had to be replaced. With no recognised 10 on the bench, scrum-half Cooney had to shift outwards, and he struggled to impose himself on the game in the same way as the man he had replaced. Ulster had already lost their top try scorer Craig Gilroy to injury in the sixth minute.
Ulster edged their way back into the lead with a long-range offside penalty after two minutes of the second half, but Edinburgh continued to dominate possession, putting faith in their forwards to wear down their heavier counterparts with phase after phase if close-range drives. But the Ulster pack were equal to the challenge, and when the visitors tried to play with some width they were swallowed up by Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey in the home midfield.
Cooney kicked three more points after two minutes of the second half to establish a 10-7 lead after Chris Dean was penalised for not releasing the ball after a tackle, and it looked for a while like the game might float away from Edinburgh. But then all their hard work finally paid off when a deft inside pass from captain Fraser McKenzie sent fellow second-row Lewis Carmichael galloping through four tackles to the line.
Hidalgo-Clyne slotted the conversion to put his team one point ahead, but Ulster immediately to re-establish their lead with Cooney once again kicking the points after Rory Sutherland was penalised for not rolling away in the tackle.
Edinburgh threw the kitchen sink at Ulster during the last quarter of an hour, and when Magnus Bradbury was held up over the line in the final minute it set up the scrum platform for Weir – who was called back from his loan deal at Worcester Warriors to provide emergency stand-off cover for this match – to step forward and show his nerve.
Edinburgh: D Fife; J Harries, M Bennett, C Dean, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt (D Weir 71), S Hidalgo-Clyne (N Fowles 64); J Lay (rep: R Sutherland 53), N Cochrane (C Fenton 64), M McCallum (rep: E Millar-Mills 52), F McKenzie (Du Preez 71), L Carmichael, W Mata, J Hardie (L Crosbie 53), C du Preez (M Bradbury 60).
Ulster: L Ludik; C Gilroy (D Busby 6, D Cave 44-52), L Marshall, S McCloskey, T Bowe; J McPhillips (J Stewart 35), J Cooney; A Warwick (K McCall 52), R Herring (rep: J Andrew 53), W Herbst (R Ah You 52), A O’Connor, K Treadwell (M Dalton 66), M Rea, N Timoney, J Deysel (C Henry 55).
Ulster: Try: Cooney; Con: Cooney; Pen: Cooney 3
Edinburgh: Try: Harries, Carmichael; Con: Hidalgo-Clyne 2; DG: Weir
Scoring sequence (Ulster first): 5-0; 7-0; 7-5; 7-7 (h-t) 10-7; 13-7; 13-12; 13-14; 16-14; 16-17
Referee: N Owens (WRU)