EDINBURGH, April 10, 2012 — In a year when everything that could go wrong for Scottish rugby came to pass, few expected anything resembling success to turn up for the team in any major competition this year. The exception to the rule throughout the 2011-12 season was Edinburgh Rugby’s Heineken Cup campaign, which put a Scottish side in the quarterfinals for only the second time.
On April 7, Edinburgh injected new life into the hopes of the country, shocking four-time champion Toulouse, 19-14, in front of a boisterous crowd of 37,881 fans, the highest mark ever recorded for a Heineken Cup quarterfinal held in the United Kingdom.
In the past calendar year, almost every competition has brought a new affliction to rugby in Scotland. The 2011 Rugby World Cup saw the national team fail to reach the knockout stages following narrow losses to England and Argentina. Heading into the 2012 Six Nations, all was supposed to be reversed, with the Scots boasting a forward pack lauded as perhaps their greatest ever, and England reeling. Instead, Scotland failed to pick up a single win, were felled by even lowly Italy, and scored only four tries in five matches.
On the other hand, in their six round-robin Heineken Cup matches, try-scoring was most certainly not an issue for Edinburgh, which rode a talented back line to seventeen tries in total. That trend was evident right from the get-go against Toulouse, with scrum-half Mike Blair fielding a high kick and crossing over on his back less than a minute in.
Remarkably, that was the end of Edinburgh’s try-scoring for the duration of the match, as they committed to a defense-first strategy that put continuous pressure on Toulouse’s ball-handlers, ultimately limiting the Frenchmen to a tally 11 points below their average.
Still one of the most surprising factors was the crowd, namely the sheer size. Taking a step back to October, after losing three of their first four matches while missing several players to the Rugby World Cup, Glasgow Warriors set off on a winning campaign in the RaboDirect Pro 12, falling just once more in their next fifteen games.
The brightness continued as Edinburgh won Pool 2 in the Heineken Cup. Unfortunately, while the disastrous fixtures of the Six Nations had, as usual, filled Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium to its 67,000+ capacity, the club could only average 4,392 fans for league matches. Glasgow, despite winning three times as many league matches as Edinburgh, fared even worse, averaging 3,621 for each of its home games. (Note: Murrayfield’s capacity is restricted to 12,464 for league matches; however both teams still averaged a miserable 35% of possible attendance).
Somehow, though, nearly 38,000 made the trek to see Edinburgh take on the giants of French rugby, and no, it wasn’t because hordes of Toulouse fans crossed the channel to attend. Indeed, the crowd seemed fully behind Edinburgh with the noise level often a better barometer of the home team’s performance than the calls made by referee Nigel Owens. There were cries of rage echoing midway through the first half, when Owens sent Edinburgh prop Allan Jacobsen and flanker Ross Rennie to the sin-bin within two minutes of each other, leading to eight Toulouse points that gave the Frenchmen a 14-7 lead. All were on their feet every time electric Edinburgh winger Tim Visser touched the ball. And in the final minute there was complete silence as captain Greig Laidlaw ran out the clock with his third and final penalty kick to win the match.
There were ample moments when it appeared as if Edinburgh’s luck was about to run out, keeping the match tense throughout the second half as Laidlaw steadily converted all but one of the penalty kicks offered to him, bringing his team up from a 14-10 deficit to a 16-14 lead with 30 minutes to go. As Edinburgh tried to hold possession in the remainder of the match, they were aided at last by the weather when the sun finally re-emerged after a steady rain in the first half that ruined numerous drives by forcing drops and forward knocks.
Calls started going in Edinburgh’s favor as well, with Owens proving extremely willing to penalize Toulouse at the scrum and at the breakdown. Indeed, for the final half-hour, Edinburgh played the type of clinical rugby that has been absent from their strategy in the Pro 12, hitting hard, forcing errors by the bucketful, closeting their opponents in one half of the field, and wasting as much time as possible. The pressure was enough that trailing 16-14, Toulouse coach Guy Noves pulled six of his eight forwards in favor of fresh legs, who made inroads into Edinburgh territory, but still conceded the final penalty that put hope back into Scottish rugby.
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