BOTH young men went at Friday night’s 1872 Cup affair like a couple of angry wildebeest, but one emerged smiling ahead of Christmas Day and the other left plotting revenge.
After training today and enjoying a rare Tuesday off to spend time with family and friends around the Christmas tree, the focus will return swiftly on Boxing Day to the matter of restoring pride in Scottish professional rugby. In the final game of 2012 on Saturday, Edinburgh will host a buoyant Glasgow Warriors at Murrayfield in the second leg of the 1872 Cup, desperate to avenge the three-tries-to-one, 23-14 win for their closest rivals.
There was much that went on in the game at Scotstoun on Friday, and the wingers claimed much of the spotlight, but there were few places where the differences in the teams’ approach, the aggression and the accuracy, was as plain as in the work of the back row forwards. Edinburgh men David Denton, Roddy Grant and Stuart McInally – and others – struggled to make ground with ball in hand and were regularly battered backwards, thus failing to get their side on the front foot and leaving scrum-half Greig Laidlaw resorting to the boot to find some ‘go-forward’. Meanwhile, the Glasgow trio of Rob Harley, Chris Fusaro and Ryan Wilson, and later James Eddie, were at the apex of a thrusting Warriors performance in attack and defence.
So Harley emerged a happy boy. A quiet, reluctant hero he may appear off the field, but on it the 22-year-old has learned quickly about the edges in a game, where to knock people back, to take them off-guard and leave an imprint, and when Laidlaw tried to set about him in the second half, the frustration in the visitors’ inability to cope with the red head from Milngavie was clear.
Harley also helped himself to a try, the decisive second that knocked the stuffing from Edinburgh’s first-half fight, but the blindside flanker insisted it was not all plain sailing.
“That was the toughest game of the year,” he said. “We said in the build-up it would be a physical battle and the passion would come out but I don’t think you are ever ready for the intensity of it; how hard every hit is, how everybody smashes into the contact. It is a strange challenge to play those guys, especially Matt Scott and Gilco [lock Grant Gilchrist] who I played with in all the age groups coming through and trained with every day in the academy. We know each other well and the personal motivation is so big it makes it so important to get the upper hand.
“I will watch the game tape this week and see what they are doing and any advantage we can get for the second game I will be trying to get as well. We know they will be hurting with the defeat and will be trying to raise it for the next match, so we will have to raise it too.”
For powerful and athletic 17/18-stone back rows, the line between aggressive domination and foul play is a thin one and Harley insisted that he was keen to keep it hard but fair. He put his late hit on Denton in the first half down to surprise at his opposite number passing the ball, which earned a penalty and warning from the French referee, but revealed that it did not earn him any back-slaps from teammates.
“It is one of those things where emotion runs high as you try to get the physical dominance and upper hand,” he said, shrugging. “It was something that my teammates actually got into me about and they told me on the pitch it was not acceptable to be hurting the team with ill-discipline so I had to rein it back. That was completely the right advice. I tried to take it on board and not do anything silly because at that point our defence was holding well and had great shape, but I took us back and that gives them territory or points.
“It was just over-eagerness. I saw him [Denton] pick up the ball and wanted to make the hit and sometimes you time it right, sometimes you don’t. I did not expect him to throw a 20-yard pass from the base of the ruck but it is something that he has been working on.”
Harley is an eminently believable sort, but he also knows that he needs to outshine Denton to have a chance of landing the Scotland no6 jersey for the RBS Six Nations. Denton’s teammate Stuart McInally, the No 8 and also 22, knows he is not far away from a Scotland call-up either, and believes that that first half will provide all the motivation his side needs to take the fight to Harley and his Warriors on Saturday.
He said: “We knew what they would do but we were still taken aback by it which I was disappointed with. At half-time Michael said what was needed to be said. He talked about aggression and the word passion came up – and we got the reaction, but that also annoyed me because we cannot wait until half time to start playing. We were 14 points down by then. We know we played really poorly in the first half and I am not shying away from the fact that I don’t think we have played as well as we can all season yet.
“But we know that in the 20 minutes after half-time [against Glasgow] we had the edge. We got the nudge on the scrum, line-outs going well, improving at the breakdown and things going our way and that is when you get confidence that you are on top and there is nothing special about the team you are playing. What we lacked then was composure to look after the ball.”
That is largely why the Edinburgh back line hardly fired, why wingers Tim Visser and Lee Jones were trudging in quicksand while opposite numbers Sean Maitland and DTH van der Merwe seemed to be gliding over the pitch. The big men may be looking forward to turkey and the trimmings permitted by the fitness coaches, but they are already preparing themselves for another battle for the ground that leads to tries and the smile of victors.
“It’s going to go up a level again this week, no doubt,” said McInally. “You saw the quality of the hits going in on Friday night, and I like that. That is the quality and physicality we need from all our club matches, not just big ones against Glasgow.
“We can’t wait to get out there at Murrayfield, take some confidence from the second half but this time put in a good 80 minute performance. That is what we need to turn this around.”