L ast season’s Six Nations and Scotland’s summer tour mean that we can approach the new season with optimism more justified than usual, when brave whistling in the dark hasn’t managed to disguise apprehension. Time for that later. Meanwhile what are the prospects for Edinburgh and Glasgow? Last season both met with some success in the European cup competitions; both were disappointing in the Guinness Pro12. In Glasgow’s case this was to some extent understandable and forgivable, since they lost so many players to the Scotland squad; less so in Edinburgh’s.
Both clubs start the new season with a new head coach: Dave Rennie at Glasgow, Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh. Both have experienced success elsewhere, Rennie with the Chiefs in New Zealand, Cockerill with Leicester, though his long reign there ended abruptly and unhappily in mid-season only a few months ago. Reputation matters of course. It enables an incoming coach to be greeted with respect and to speak with authority. Nevertheless, success with one club doesn’t guarantee success with another. Professional rugby is in many ways becoming more like professional football, with players and coaches/managers on a merry-go-round, or often not so merry a one. A manager may fit one club and gain a reputation there, then see it wither when he moves up or sideways. Think of David Moyes.
Glasgow have benefited from stability: first Sean Lineen, then Gregor Townsend for four years. Edinburgh’s experience has been different: poor results, change the coach, Cockerill having been preceded by (in reverse order) Duncan Hodge (as interim acting coach), Alan Solomons, Michael Bradley and Andy Robinson. All had their moments of success, but more of failure. In the last two or three years they have been a team capable of playing very well, and also of more often playing very badly. There is a perception that they have been a bit soft, mentally rather than physically. Cockerill is expected to make them tougher. In his good years at Leicester his teams made a habit of winning matches even when they hadn’t played very well.
Coaching the two Scottish clubs brings its own problems. The relationship between the clubs and the SRU is unusually, if not quite uniquely, close. It is after all the SRU which appoints the head coaches – and dismisses them if they prove unsatisfactory. It’s a relationship quite different from anything Richard Cockerill has previously experienced either at Leicester or in his few months at Toulon, which is the property of a very rich man who pays little heed to the interest of the French national team. And though we are always told that everything in New Zealand is geared towards the All Blacks, the fact that there are five NZ Super Rugby teams must put a little more distance between them and the national side than is the case here in Scotland.
Even if the two South African clubs that have joined what was once the Celtic League are ineligible for the European Cup competitions, qualifying for the knockout stages will be very hard. Glasgow reached the quarter-final last year, by the skin of their teeth, and were rewarded with an away match against Saracens, the reigning champions who went on to retain the Cup. Glasgow’s pool looks manageable – Exeter Chiefs, Leinster and Montpellier – if they are at their best; but each of the other three will be of the same opinion.
The league itself will be close, intense and unpredictable. The last three champions (after the play-offs) have been Scarlets, Connacht and Glasgow. How many would have bet on that outcome at the beginning of each season? No Leinster? No Munster? No Ospreys? Remarkable. Ospreys, like Glasgow, have probably suffered from supplying so many players to their national team, whereas Scarlets and Connacht have provided fewer. That said, both deserved the title because, like Glasgow in their title-winning year, they played adventurous and skilful rugby, Scarlets being brilliant in their final against Munster.
Can Edinburgh make a showing this year? They have, if everyone is fit, at least as formidable a pack as any team in the league, with an All-Scotland front row, Ben Toolis (outstanding on Scotland’s summer tour), and Hamish Watson or John Hardie at 7. They have three good scrum-halves and players in the back three capable of scoring tries against anyone. Last year, however, their midfield defence was often lamentable. Unless this is tightened, exciting victories will again be followed too often by heavy defeats. At Glasgow, Rennie’s challenge is to build on Townsend’s achievement, while at the same time managing rotation successfully, rotation being necessary to ensure that players such as Finn Russell and Johnny Gray remain fresh throughout a long and arduous season.
Still, it should all be fun to watch with, let us hope, more joy than heartache.