WHEN we talk about a team defending a lead, it is usually just a figure of speech: a way of saying they are ahead in a game. But sometimes the phrase can be taken too literally by the team itself - Edinburgh being a case in point in their 22-19 defeat by Ulster on Saturday night.

“Attacking a lead” would be a more appropriate way of summarising what needs to be done when you are in front in a match. And it is what the best, most confident teams do: go on the offensive in a bid to ram home your advantage; ruthlessly extinguish the last sputtering hopes the opposition have of getting back into the game.

Edinburgh are a good team, a significantly improved team, but they are not yet one of the best. And they are certainly not yet among the most confident teams either, hence the way they retreated into their shell in the PRO14 semi-final at Murrayfield, losing their self-belief and letting a 12-point advantage slip out of their hands en route to a last-minute loss.  

Ulster deserved their win, sealed with the final kick of the game by an Ian Madigan penalty, but from a home point of view it has to go down as another one that got away - the third time in as many years that Edinburgh have come up short in a major knockout match.

“Yeah, extremely disappointing,” was the verdict of lock Ben Toolis, who was making his return from shoulder surgery. “Fair play to Ulster, and to Ian Madigan, but at the same time we need to be a bit smarter and learn how to close those games out.

“There have been a few games - Munster in Europe last year and the year before that in the [PRO14] quarters - where we played really well. But there are fine margins, and we need to make sure that when we’re in a position like that we need to better utilise the pitch and not be silly and give them the ball.

“The smallest things can let them back into the game and it becomes a mental battle then. We probably deserved the loss, because we didn’t close out the game when we should have.”

Knowing what went wrong is easier than knowing how to put it right, as Toolis admitted when asked why the team had been unable to learn the lessons of those two Munster matches.

“I don’t know. I thought we would have learned from that.

“We were stupid with some of the decisions we made, and Ulster fought hard in the second half and found a way to win. But we just need to make sure that when we’re winning and in a good position, we need to keep pushing and learn how to win those games.”

Richard Cockerill’s frustration was evident at the end of the game, but the head coach, like Toolis, admitted it was hard to state precisely why his team had not matured enough.

“We’ve had enough opportunities to learn, and tonight we had to deliver, and we didn’t,” he said. “It’s not good enough.

“They are good players and they played really good rugby to get into a winning position, but we have to stay engaged the whole time. We score, we don’t collect the kick-off, and we end up getting penalised and they score from the line-out. We need to have a good hard look at ourselves, because it is a continual problem.”

A continual problem, and a collective one. It was Mike Willemse, the substitute hooker, who gave away the match-winning penalty with a deliberate knock-on, but, as Toolis added, that was just the last lapse of discipline in a lengthy list. 

 “Obviously he’s gutted, but at the same time . . . . People might say that was the deciding factor, but there was a lot of areas in the last 10 minutes that led to penalties that kept them in the game - kept them in our half and we had to defend. Sometimes that happens, and unfortunately for Mike, he’s probably feeling that it was his fault, but it’s not his fault: it’s a collective thing.”

It will come as no consolation to Cockerill or his players, but it should be noted that Edinburgh are not the only team to regularly fail to rise to the occasion: Ulster themselves had been to six PRO14 semi-finals before this one and lost five. So perhaps the simple answer is to just keep hammering away at things: keep getting into the knockout stages and sooner or later the accumulated big-game experience will teach you how to prevail in them.

Of course, Edinburgh will have to learn very quickly indeed from this demoralising defeat if they are to do better in their next knockout match - the Challenge Cup quarter-final on Saturday week against Bordeaux-Begles, the club who had been leading the French Top 14 when the season was cancelled in May.