WELL, it’s a relief – isn’t it? – in this turbulent time, to turn one’s thoughts to rugby, and to the fine start made by both Scottish teams in the opening round of the Guinness league. Since I’m writing this on Friday, of necessity before Edinburgh play Connacht at Murrayfield, things may not look so rosy by the time the paper is on your breakfast table. Nevertheless, Edinburgh’s defeat of Munster at Thomond Park was an excellent and very welcome beginning to what one hopes will be a much better season for them.
It’s true that Munster were a pretty average side last week. Munster without Paul O’Connell is a bit like soda without whisky. And they were also missing Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, two of Ireland’s outstanding players last season. On the other hand, Edinburgh were without Matt Scott and David Denton as, sadly, they will be for several weeks, and nobody can doubt that Edinburgh are stronger if these two are on the field.
Edinburgh played a limited game pretty well, tackling ferociously and contesting the breakdown vigorously. They did show a bit more ambition early on and were unlucky to have the pass from Tom Heathcote that put Dougie Fife clear judged forward. It looked pretty flat to me. Fife had one other storming run, but one of the disappointing features of the game was that Simon Zebo, Munster’s most dangerous runner, saw far more of the ball than Tim Visser did. If Edinburgh are to score tries, they must surely bring Visser and Fife into the game more often.
At Scotstoun, Glasgow for the first half played as well and exhilaratingly as one has seen any Scottish team play against good opposition for a long time. They scored three tries and might well have had five. They fell away a bit in the second half, especially after Alex Dunbar limped off. He had been terrific in both defence and attack, looking a bit like a top South African centre in the way he made deep inroads up the middle almost every time he had the ball.
Happily, though, there are now lots of South Africans here and in the Guinness League, Dunbar is a hundred per cent native Scots, product of Annan and Selkirk. When he was at Philiphaugh as a boy of 19 or so, he used to carve holes in club defences by his straight strong running. He is stronger still now and a good deal faster. Equally effective at 12 or 13, he is surely a key player in Vern Cotter’s plans as well as in Gregor Townsend’s. His fearless commitment means he will always pick up a few knocks, and, if I was Gregor, I would have him wrapped in cotton wool to make sure he is fit and available for the big matches. It was only a couple of utterly unforced errors, as they say in tennis, that let Leinster back in the game. Niko Matawalu is such a brilliant player that one is ready to forgive him almost anything. He has turned important matches in Glasgow’s favour in his couple of seasons with the club; but this time, by conceding a silly penalty deep in his own 22, he opened the door for Leinster.
The second Leinster try a couple of minutes later owed much to Ian Madigan’s huge kick out of defence. It didn’t seem that Peter Murchie was out of position; it really was a monstrous kick that flew way over his head and bounced disobligingly into touch five metres from the try-line. Glasgow then mucked up the line-out and one couldn’t say whether it was the call or throw that was wrong. But there it was. A match they were winning comfortably was slipping away, and it says much for the team’s resilience and composure that they regained control and snatched victory back.
There was an interesting moment in the second half which shows how the game has been changed by the introduction of the television match official. Nigel Owens gave a penalty against Rob Harley. Harley approached him and suggested he should look at a TV replay which would show that he had been pushed in the back, pushed over indeed, when well away from the ball. At any time in the past, or indeed even now in the amateur game, Harley might have been reprimanded for dissent, questioning the referee’s decision. Nigel Owens sensibly did as requested. The replay clearly showed that Harley was right, and, sensibly again, Owens cancelled the penalty award and ordered a scrum at the breakdown.
One doesn’t like to see players disputing refereeing decisions, and Harley mightn’t have got away with his plea if he hadn’t spoken quietly and politely. Nevertheless, one has, I think, to accept that the decision to use television as an aid to refereeing has changed things. At Cardiff in the spring readers will remember that the referee changed Stuart Hogg’s yellow card to a red one after the Welsh captain – backed up by the angry crowd – suggested he should take a second look at Hogg’s assault on Dan Biggar. One can’t say he was wrong. Nevertheless, the question is: how much of this should be allowed? One suggestion is that a team should be allowed two unsuccessful appeals in a game, like DRS in cricket. It would be up to the captain to decide when to use them. That sounds fair enough – but it’s quite likely that a captain would not have appealed in a case like Harley’s last week.