WHATEVER one’s doubts about the wisdom of Edinburgh’s recruitment policy, and its implications for young Scottish players, one can only admire the improvement the club’s South African coaches have effected in the team’s defence.
This has been exceptionally good in the last couple of matches. Perpignan may not be quite as strong as they were a couple of years ago, but they had periods of sustained attack last weekend which brought them no reward. Moreover Edinburgh seem – for the moment anyway – to have rid themselves of the infuriating habit of conceding a score of some sort immediately after scoring themselves.
It was a pity that they didn’t manage to grab a fourth try, and therefore a bonus point, but any disappointment should be alleviated by the reflection that it’s not long since any kind of win was rare enough to be welcome, no matter how achieved or by how narrow a margin. Three victories in the pool stages of the Heineken is what you might call a par score for either of the Scottish pro clubs. The odds are heavily against Edinburgh adding another win at Thomond Park, where Munster are always deservedly favourites – but if they manage to pull it off, their European season will properly be judged a modest success.
Glasgow’s was undermined by two poor performances against Cardiff, a team they should generally expect to beat, and scarcely redeemed by two wins against Exeter, however pleasing it always is to win against an English Premiership club – and indeed this was the first time Glasgow have ever done that away from home.
A victory over the cup-holders, Toulon, at Scotstoun this afternoon would on the one hand be highly gratifying, on the other an occasion for even sharper regret about the Cardiff games. Toulon have a budget which matches two or even three seasons of Glasgow and Edinburgh combined, and, though they have already qualified, they need a victory to get a home tie in the quarter-final. Yet they don’t always play well away from the south of France, and they have been inconsistent this season. One would guess that Glasgow have a better chance against Toulon than Edinburgh against Munster.
Preliminary international squads are now so large that there are rarely any surprises. Nevertheless there may still be what are perceived as injustices; and the omission of Roddy Grant who has been in such outstanding form for Edinburgh is one of them. Scott Johnson went some way to explaining why he has left him out by saying that he now regarded Kelly Brown as a 7, even though many of us with a high regard for Brown think him best on the blindside.
Indeed, to my mind, a back-row of Brown (6), David Denton (8) and Roddy Grant (7) would have been ideal. Of course there are two other 7s in the squad besides Brown: Ross Rennie and Chris Fusaro. Sent out on loan to Bristol yesterday for some game time Rennie – outstanding when fully fit – has been having another much-interrupted season, while Fusaro, though he is captaining Glasgow today, seems to have spent at least as much time on the bench as on the field. He is a very fine young player, in much the same mould as Grant, but on current form I would put Grant ahead of him.
The inclusion of Fusaro and Rennie means that there is no place for John Barclay either, something that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. It will be sad if he drifts out of the international game well before he is 30 – just as Ally Hogg did, somewhat mysteriously.
I would suppose that Johnson has already inked in the names of a dozen of his starting XV – always allowing for injuries and also depending on whether he judges players now recovered from injury, notably Matt Scott and Jonny Gray, sufficiently fit - and match-fit – for international rugby three weeks from now. At lock and perhaps blindside where there is uncertainty, it may be that he is spoiled for choice. The question of a replacement for Euan Murray at tight head is difficult, partly because Alan Solomons has consistently preferred Willem Nel, who is not eligible for Scotland, to Geoff Cross, who is. Yet Cross has had very fine games for Scotland , notably against Ireland.
Behind the scrum there are, one assumes, doubts about outside centre, left wing and, of course, as always, fly-half where Greig Tonks has been playing well enough for Edinburgh to be added to the mix. Ruaridh Jackson is starting for Glasgow against Toulon and has therefore been given the chance to play himself into the Scotland side for the first international – or, of course, out of it. He is being partnered today by Henry Pyrgos, with whom he usually plays well, partly because Pyrgos has perhaps the longest and flattest pass of our scrum-halves; but then Pyrgos is not in Johnson’s training squad.
A lot may happen before that squad is whittled down to a match day one, including, of course, injuries. And – who knows? – Scott Johnson’s face may be as red as Roddy Grant’s hair if the Edinburgh flanker produces another performance against Munster to match recent ones against Perpignan and Gloucester.