Blair Kinghorn was standing in a corridor at Thomond Park, still in his kit, still with an expression of despondency on his face after Edinburgh’s exit from the Pro14.
The back was trying to put a brave slant on it, talking up the strides his team had made this season, the games they won that they would not have won before, the standards they have now that they never had before.
It was, all in all, an achievement to get to the knockouts for the first time, he said. And yet there was his demeanour to consider. He tried to keep a lid on his annoyance, but it was unmistakeable.
Edinburgh might be in the early stages of their rebuild under Richard Cockerill, they might have done well to get to the knockouts and they might have been underdogs to go any further, but the reality is that this was a massive opportunity missed.
Edinburgh have made unarguable progress under Cockerill but that shouldn’t lessen the disappointment of what happened in Limerick. This was a game against a moderate team playing low-risk rugby in a half-empty stadium. Intimidating, it was not.
Edinburgh dominated possession and territory. The top five tacklers were all wearing the red of Munster, a further illustration of the balance of play. Even allowing for all of Munster’s good defence there was still a heap of bad defence. Munster missed a huge total of 38 tackles whereas Edinburgh missed 14.
Cockerill didn’t go there in the aftermath – it was probably not the time – but he will know that they should have won this. He said that Edinburgh’s recovery from the dog-days is not at a level where they can hope to win the Pro14 and that is undoubtedly true. They should have been good enough to win this one, though.
‘Killer instinct deserted Edinburgh’
They didn’t deliver anything like their best stuff in Limerick. They gifted Munster seven points at the start through horrendous and untypical confusion at a line-out in their own 22, then let Munster off the hook with another line-out malfunction right at the end when the home team – and the home support – were fretting.
In between, it was a dogfight. This was no oil painting of a rugby match. Still, Edinburgh had their line breaks and their chances – and their bad decision-making and their fumbles and their turnovers. They missed a three-on-one overlap in the Munster 22 early on, then failed to make the most of a terrific break by Kinghorn later on.
Edinburgh got turned over 17 times. It was a lack of killer instinct that deserted them on the day. What may gall them, privately if not publicly, is the knowledge that they can be better than this, that if they’d turned up with their A game it might well have been good enough.
It made you wonder what might have happened had Jamie Ritchie been fit enough to play. He was named in the starting line-up but never made the plane to Ireland. Another regret for Cockerill. Another reason to think of what might have been. Ritchie’s energy and belligerence would have helped the cause. He was a big loss.
Out of the competition, Cockerill was left to look at the big picture. It’s pleasing, no doubt about it.
In getting an angle on where Edinburgh came from, there are so many starting points, so many grim stops on this journey. Cockerill’s own moment of realisation came in mid-September when Benetton came to Myreside. It was his third league game in charge and he was about to be hit between the eyes with a reminder of the size of the job he had on his hands.
Edinburgh raced into a 14-0 lead after 25 minutes and still managed to lose 20-17. Benetton had two men sin-binned in the last six minutes but Edinburgh couldn’t get through them.
There were legitimate calls for a penalty try in the dying seconds but Cockerill was of no mind to use that as an excuse. He batted away an opportunity to have a go at the officials. He was not having an excuse-making culture at his club.
Some months later, he spoke about that night. “That will haunt me forever,” he said. “It was probably one of the worst experiences of my coaching career. Just horrific. If I was a supporter I’m not sure I would have gone back after that. We were rubbish. I didn’t sleep well for two or three days.”
Cockerill is driving standards and things are improving fast. The team has been reshaped and will be reshaped further when John Barclay, Matt Scott, Simon Hickey and others join in the summer.
A new Edinburgh is emerging. That shouldn’t reduce the pain of Saturday. Albeit, it’s an altogether different type of pain compared to the darkness before Cockerill brought in some light.