Not surprisingly the professional season has been disjointed. The World Cup has taken its toll. So, over the last few weeks, has the weather. Most horribly there was the Friday, 13 November atrocity in Paris. Consequently some of the best teams in the Guinness Pro 12 have scarcely got going, even though more than a third of league matches have already been played.
Scarlets and Connacht sit at the top of the table, which is partly because they had fewer players on World Cup duty than some of their rivals. In contrast Glasgow have lost three of their eight league matches (and were also beaten by Northampton in their only European Cup game to date), while Ospreys, recently the best of the Welsh clubs, have lost five league games in nine.
Moreover some players haven’t yet fully recovered from the World Cup. This is natural enough. It was a very demanding experience. Finn Russell didn’t look up to the mark when Glasgow played Northampton. Likewise, England’s fly-half George Ford had a very poor match last week for Bath. And others have scarcely yet eased themselves back into the club game.
All this makes predictions for this week’s return to European duty hazardous. Glasgow have Scarlets at home. The Welsh team have already been beaten by Racing Metro and Northampton. So their chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals is already poor. Another defeat would end their European interest for the season. They have a longish injury list too. (Who hasn’t?). On the other hand Glasgow have scarcely been anywhere near their best yet. Their match in Paris was of course postponed, but they were badly bullied by the Northampton pack in a home game they would surely have marked down as not only a likely win, but a necessary one. The worrying thing is that they haven’t yet managed to play their fast off-loading game, partly of course because they have struggled up front this season.
It was always probable that they would find this year difficult, both because of the number of their players involved in the World Cup, and because they are up there to be shot at and so other teams raise their game against them. Still that’s the penalty of success and something they have to live with, just as Leinster and Munster have over the years.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh have been maintaining the improvement they showed in the second half of last season, and playing a more expansive game too. London Irish, away, should be a good test this afternoon, a measure of where they are, even though the Irish have been struggling in the English Premiership. Interestingly their assistant coach is Clark Laidlaw, back from New Zealand where he had a similar role with the Hurricanes.It’s good to see young Scottish coaches climbing the ladder.
Clark’s cousin, Greig, the Scotland and Gloucester captain, is one who seems to have fully recovered from his World Cup exertions. He had a very good match against Worcester on Thursday, controlling the game adroitly and setting up what was the decisive score with a sharp break and perfectly timed pass. Some complain that he doesn’t break often enough. Perhaps they have a point, but rationing attempts to break makes good sense; the opposition take their eye off you. The great Jackie Kyle rarely broke more than once or twice in a match, almost always successfully. Dan Carter passes or kicks about 95 per cent of the ball he receives. It’s rarely a good idea for a half-back to run into a tackle and take himself out of the next phase of his team’s attack. He’s a controller, not a battering-ram.
It’s good that Scotland are to play two internationals in Japan next summer. It shows a realistic appreciation of where we are in the pecking-order. Vern Cotter’s young team isn’t ready to tour New Zealand or South Africa. Japan away will be a very good test, and I hope that they will be invited to Murrayfield in return before they host the 2019 World Cup.
All the same, one worries about the demands now being made on leading players. They all need some time away from the game, more than a few weeks. There’s a Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017, and one hopes that there will be more Scots in that Lions party than in recent ones. But when do the top players get a proper break? Perhaps in 2018 any Scottish summer tour should be only for an “A” team.
Almost all sports now demand too much of players. Conditioning and squad preparation are important, but so is freshness. Clubs may have been easing World Cup players as gently as possible into the club game, but the Six Nations isn’t far off now, and a lot of players are going to be mighty tired when the season’s final whistle is blown.