St Andrews may have comfortably won the historic varsity game at the start of the season, but Edinburgh got the better of the team last Wednesday in the BUCS trophy quarter-final, running out 22-18 winners.
There was a palpable sense of excitement amongst the crowd at University Park, with fans of both sides knowing that a solid 80 minutes would set them up for a semi-final meeting against the University of Reading. Adding to this was the fact that St Andrews and Edinburgh form the oldest rivalry in British student sport, and there were some definite local bragging rights at stake.
St Andrews may have opened proceedings, kicking from left to right, but it was the away side that registered the game’s opening points. A fairly routine penalty put the team in the lead, but that lead was to last just four minutes, with Toby Hall taking advantage of a quick penalty to score the game’s opening try. Scott Docherty added the conversion to put St Andrews 7-3 up.
Edinburgh added another penalty just after the 20-minute mark to reduce the deficit to one, but again St Andrews refused to allow Edinburgh any momentum and scored their second try with 25 minutes on the clock. A mazy run from Roland Walker created a dogleg in the Edinburgh defence that Rob Lind, who later lost his shirt in a tackle, was able to exploit in the right-hand corner. Docherty was unlucky to miss the conversion, but St Andrews now led 12-6.
Whilst the balance of play was reflected in the scoreline thus far, some questionable penalty decisions by the referee and an upturn in Edinburgh’s performance meant that the away side went into the break with the lead after scoring two tries of its own.
Both tries came as a result of driving mauls from lineouts, something that must have come as a blow to the Saints, who were incredibly dominant at set-pieces throughout the game. On both occasions the Edinburgh fly-half was unable to maximise either score, dragging both conversions short. That meant that at the break, St Andrews only trailed Edinburgh by four.
Two penalties from Scott Docherty put St Andrews back into the lead early in the second half, but Edinburgh replied with one of its own. The score stood at 19-18, the capital side ahead with half an hour remaining.
The physical intensity of the game was something to behold, and as much as the fans tried to urge their respective teams on, defence continually cancelled out attack.
Handling errors began to creep in for both sides as tiredness became a factor. That said, another infraction by the Saints at the ruck meant that Edinburgh had the chance to extend its lead back out to four points with a penalty 10 minutes from time. The team’s fly-half showed considerably more composure than he had previously to slot the kick over the bar and make it 22-18.
Whilst that was how the game would finish, St Andrews did have chances to potentially cause an upset and move on to what would have been an historic semi-final.
With eight minutes to go, the Saints had a penalty just outside the Edinburgh 22. The relatively easy kick at goal would have put them just one behind with one more chance to score the match winning points. Docherty opted for the corner, making a decision that cannot be easily criticised.
Indeed, whilst hindsight perhaps suggests he should have gone for the points and hoped another chance arose in the final few minutes, St Andrews had been so dominant in the lineouts and had had real success running from deep (the contributions of Toby Hall, Roland Walker, Scott MacGregor and Killian Faith-Kelly particularly stand out) that opting for the corner was a sound strategy.
This strategy did not pay off, and neither did the Saints’s final push for the line, which ended with the ball being held up and the referee blowing for full-time. Whilst some unsavoury scenes followed that neither team will be particularly proud of in retrospect, both played their part in an enthralling game of rugby that certainly kept temperatures warm in cold conditions.
Much as it has been all season, Edinburgh was clinical when it counted and now moves on to a semi-final with Reading and potentially exciting all-Scottish final against Glasgow, who beat Leicester 19-15 in one of the day’s earlier quarter-finals.
The fact that there were three Scottish university teams in the quarter-finals of the national competition is incredibly exciting and shows that the future of Scottish rugby is in good hands. As the old saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
If more Scottish teams are playing well and being able to compete UK-wide, then that will increase the standard of competition in the Scottish BUCS leagues and mean that for promoted sides, the step up to Premier North is not as great.
This defeat ended St Andrews’ cup ambitions for this season, but the team can look back on its performance with immense pride. The players embodied everything that this University is about and continued to show immense progress under the tutelage of Director of Rugby David Ross.
The fixture was also the team’s last home game of the season, with the remaining two league games being away fixtures against Edinburgh and Manchester. There is, however, still something to play for in both fixtures.
A victory in either could see St Andrews take second place in the table behind Edinburgh, whilst a potential league triumph is still mathematically possible if the team wins both fixtures and earns winning bonus points in doing so. To even be in the title race is incredibly impressive, especially when you consider the struggles the team went through last season.
The St Andrews players’ performances throughout the season have shown how good student sport can really be, and they have raised the benchmark for other clubs.