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Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Edinburgh: 61 (19) Southern Kings: 13 (13)



The end of 2019 and the accompanying end of the decade has seen pretty much everyone selecting their team of the last 10 years, in whatever sport.  I have been looking back in a different way, stumbling across old friends as I clear the spare room ready for new use.

There's been a small sweet tin, carefully labelled in youthful hand 'Scotland v Barbarians 1983', containing a tiny, dessicated tangle of Murrayfield grass collected back in the days when you could invade the pitch after no side without getting arrested.  Among the programmes is one from my only ever visit to The Gnoll in Neath, in 2002, with a youthful, tanned Big Gav Henson smouldering characteristically on the cover; an Embra cap signed by Berwick legend Craig 'Biggers' Smith; and one of those tiny Scotland rugby balls, signed personally by Brendan 'The Chainsaw' Laney.

So many memories.  So much has changed in the succeeding years.

Yet while the idea that the Gunners would play in a league involving South African provinces would have seemed impossible not so long ago, here we are, having welcomed the Southern Kings to BT Murrayfield last night. The sport is globalising rapidly and Scottish rugby is increasingly comfortable in adjusting to that change.

One thing that did not change last night, as a few sage observers pointed out, was that the Kings ended up on the wrong end of a big score.  It did not help that they played most of the match short handed.  Pieter Scholz was red carded early on, having led with his elbow into John Barclay's throat.  A further yellow for Aston Fortuin late in the match, coupled with the Kings having run out of replacements and therefore unable to replace the injured DJ Terblanche, saw the Embramen facing 12 men in the final ten minutes.  It was little surprise that they racked up the tries in that period, on a night when they scored nine in total.  

The South African side played with ambition in attack, Cronje and Jackson notching two smart tries in the first period, while some individuals stood out, notably full back van Breda and openside Bholi.  But too often their basic skills let them down and their physicality was not always optimally directed.

Referee Joy Neville got the big calls right throughout, even if it might not have seemed that way at times to those of a blue and burnt orange persuasion who were present.  She applied World Rugby's Decision Making Framework For High Tackles correctly in carding Scholz but later only penalising Ferreira for a clash that saw the always impressive Nick Haining on the ground receiving medical attention for a worryingly long time.  Replays showed that the latter injury was due to a rugby incident - an accidental clash of heads - rather than foul play.

For the Embramen, it was a curate's egg of a performance.  On the plus side, they put a big score on the visitors, nine different players crossed and they now sit top of PRO14 conference B, three points ahead of second placed Scarlets.  They were ruthless late on and there were some outstanding performances in there, not least Jaco van de Walt, who seemed determined to mark his 50th Edinburgh appearance with a buccaneering display in attack.  Wee Jimmy Johnstone sparkled and deserved his Man of the Match award, while the cameo appearance from Charlie Shiel gave a taste of what is to come from this talented half back.

On the debit side, though, it still felt like a pretty flat performance, especially in the first half.  Richard Cockerill, after the Glasgow victory, had pointed out that this is a side that has the ability to climb a mountain one week, then jump off a cliff the next.  While the Embramen avoided the usual lemming act this time, they did turn up looking like they expected the Kings to roll over.  The performance gives them plenty to work on.  No bad thing, given they are heading to France to play in form Bordeaux-Begles next weekend.

After Cronje's early try, off a well judged kick to the corner by JT Jackson, former King Mikey Willemse peeled off an advancing maul to power over for the home side's first try of the evening.  Although the Kings retook the lead with a penalty, Duhan van der Merwe put the Embramen in front for good with a fine individual try off first phase.  He weaved from the left across the park, eluding tacklers before running down the right wing to skip over in the corner.

The Sledgehammer and Scott combined well to see the second five-eighth cross for Edinburgh's third try, before Jackson pulled one back just before the break.  19-13 at the half, with a try bonus in sight, albeit the short-handed Kings were still in touch.  The visitors were competing bravely, but it seemed inevitable that the Gunners would pull away in the final quarter.

Johnstone secured the bonus shortly after the restart with a well taken try, but there was a sense that the Gunners were perhaps trying too hard to create the wonder score or add to individuals' personal tallies rather than focusing on the team as a whole.

But the floodgates really opened when Fortuin was carded for taking down an Edinburgh maul and a penalty try awarded with just over 10 minutes left to run. Facing 12 men, the Gunners really just needed to put the ball through the hands, commit what defenders remained on the park and they would inevitably score.  They duly did so to notch four tries in that period, which had the feel of an unopposed session about it as the Kings ran out of steam.

The first came from a mazy, pacy break by Shiel immediately from the restart, Sau crossing.  Then the half back's astute pop pass to the rapidly advancing Cherry saw the replacement hooker break through the defensive line and cross under the posts.  Following Shiel's own touchdown, 'Gordon' Bennett scorched up the left wing to round the night off with a score of his own to see the hosts run out very comfortable winners in the end.

THE SCHOEMAN IS ON THE OTHER FOOT

Edinburgh: 29 (7) Glasgow Warriors: 19 (7)

Every morning, I remove my works laptop from its case to meet the challenge of the day to come.  A few weeks back, I got a new laptop sleeve.  Designed by Berwick's answer to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn - Cammy Black of that venerable rugby institution, the Scottish Rugby Blog - it depicts a beaming Mr Darcy Graham, sitting atop two vanquished English defenders during that astonishing Calcutta Cup draw at Twickenham earlier this year.  The result and the opponents are neither here nor there.  What I remember from that match is how both sides played scintillating rugby, scoring some brilliant tries, while also showing the grit to come back from seemingly impossible deficits.

Then and this evening, The Prince of Hawick personified these qualities.  He scored two fabulous tries against the Warriors.  But he also put himself about more than a bit in defence.  In the first half, I saw The Ginger Ninja, Rob Harley, seek out

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BROTHERS IN ARMS

Glasgow Warriors:20 (6) Edinburgh: 16 (6)

Just as Australians associate this time of year with prawns (40% of their annual consumption takes place at Christmas), so the Scottish rugby community associates the festive period with the 1872 Cup.  And, in four of the past five years, an Edinburgh series victory.

That expectation was reflected in the build up to this evening's match at Scotstoun.  There was much nervous talk in the west about the power fo the Gunners' pack, the odd back handed compliment about the capital club's structured game plan, and a bit of anxiety among the Edimbourgeoisie about being favourites in this opening round of the 1872. 

One thing that has really struck me about Edinburgh's season so far is how the depth built up last season and during the World Cup campaign has really kicked in. The result is that there simply is not a first choice starting XV.  Yes, the likes of The Greatest Schoeman, 'Rambo' McInally, Bill Mata probably are in the box seat for their slots. 

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