IT WAS a disappointing result in Toulouse. It wasn’t a disappointing match. In truth, it was a cracker, as good as anything we’ve seen this season. Both sides played with adventure and flair. Both defences were utterly committed and well organised There were many tremendous tackles, in which context I hope that the admirable Finn Russell will have learned that the tip tackle has no place in the game. It’s dangerous, and referees are now alert to its danger. So it usually results in the concession of a penalty, and, for the tackler, ten minutes on the sidelines to brood on his rash act. Glasgow might well have lost anyway, but Toulouse won the game in the time Russell was off.
We did learn, however, that, even without touching their best (because there were too many handling errors) Glasgow now belong in the top tier of European club rugby. There is no reason to think that they can’t reverse the result at Scotstoun today, even if the old belief that French teams travel badly is out of date. Playing at home is still an advantage against anyone, but visiting teams win more often now than they did in the early days of European competition. Even the fortress that is Thomond Park in Limerick was breached by Clermont Auvergne last week.
Glasgow came off second best at the breakdown too often for comfort. They might not have done so if Chris Fusaro hadn’t been injured, leaving them without a genuine No 7. They also struggled a bit in the set scrum. One had feared they might, even while hoping that the coin that referees metaphorically spin when the scrum engages would come down more often in their favour than it did. There’s no point pretending that the latest revision of the law relating to the scrum has made it less of a lottery. When someone as respected as Andy Nicol says in the TV commentary that the scrum is a joke, the wise men of the IRB should surely take note, followed by action. It’s become a means of winning a penalty rather than of supplying ball for the backs. Perhaps we should replace all scrum penalties by free kicks, while prohibiting the side granted the free kick from electing to scrum again.
There was a lot to admire in Glasgow’s performance. Alex Dunbar is, on his present form, surely one of the best centres in Europe. I hope he’s well tied to Glasgow, because on this showing more than a couple of French clubs will be coming calling. I could imagine Toulouse’s veteran coach, Guy Noves, licking his lips at the thought of a centre partnership of Dunbar and the brilliant young Gael Fickou. Finn Russell, despite his moment of folly, again did enough to suggest that he really is the answer to our long-standing problem at No 10. He had a couple of diagonal touch-finders that Ronan O’Gara or John Rutherford would have been proud of. You can’t say better than that.
Up front, Rob Harley and Jonny Gray were again tremendous. I can’t think anyone enjoys playing against Harley, any more than in the past people liked being up against those prize scavengers John Jeffrey and Finlay Calder. Like them, and, to go further back still, the greatest of Scottish back-row forwards Douglas Elliott, he revels in causing havoc. In this day of hirsute forwards and November moustaches, Jonny Gray looks innocently baby-faced as if he doesn’t need to shave more than once a week, but his work-rate is exceptional and his judgement remarkably mature. He is that coach’s delight, a player who almost always does the right thing. Jim Telfer once told me he could relax – if you can imagine that – when David Leslie had was in possession of the ball because he knew he would take the correct option. I should think Gregor Townsend feels the same way about Jonny. That most mobile and, to my mind, underrated, of hookers, Pat MacArthur was also terrific, making lots of tackles. His throwing-in was pretty good, too.
The return game is going to be a bit different because, apart from the pitch cutting up at scrums, conditions in Toulouse were good for running rugby, and, unless the weather forecasting gurus have got it all wrong, it’s likely to be wet and windy today. Pretty chilly, too. A few steepling Garryowens from Russell mightn’t be a bad idea. Teams are often fearful of losing hard-won possession when they are in or about the opposition 22, but a high kick under the posts can unnerve the best-organised defence.
Meanwhile, one’s suspicion that being in the subsidiary European competition might be just the thing for Edinburgh seems to be proving right. They sit undefeated on top of their group, which must be good for confidence and morale, whereas if they had been in the Champions Cup, one fears that they would now be registering “nul points”. And, to end on the happiest of notes, Selkirk remain undefeated at the top of National League One. The pack has been strengthened with a couple of southern imports, but the young backs who have been scoring tries for fun have all come through Selkirk High School and the Selkirk Youth Club, local boys making good, very good indeed..