It’s crunch time for both Glasgow and Edinburgh today. Victory would almost secure them a place in the knockout stage of their respective European Cups. Defeat wouldn’t necessarily eliminate them, but would come close to doing so, especially in Glasgow’s case, since their last pool match is against Leicester at Welford Road. They might go into that needing a four-try bonus point win to earn one of the best runners-up spots – a very tough proposition.
Today’s game is formidable enough. Munster have been in superb form. Nobody has been more impressive this season, not even Saracens, Wasps, Leinster and Clermont-Auvergne, all of whom have more or less booked a quarter-final place.
Ever since the sad and untimely death of Anthony Foley, Munster have played as if determined to make a triumphant season his memorial. It’s true that the repercussions of his death have made this more likely. Their opening European match, away to Racing 92 was naturally and properly postponed and, by the time it was played last weekend, Racing’s interest in the cup had expired. They fielded a weak team. Munster won with a bonus point.
This illustrates one of the weaknesses of the pool system: that a team with an interest in qualifying may find itself up against one with no chance of doing so. In these circumstances that club may choose to rest key players in order to concentrate on its domestic league. This season Racing aren’t the only club to have done this. Northampton went to Dublin with a shamefully under-strength side and were hammered. I don’t think there’s anything European Rugby can do about this, for a coach need only assert that he thought his selection the best for a particular game and is sorry to have been proved wrong. But it is unsatisfactory.
Munster , guided by their Springbok coach, Rassie Erasmus, are not only playing with their customary fire, but look extremely well-drilled.In fact he has them playing the traditional South African game: a pack that is excellent in the set-pieces, with powerful ball-carriers through the middle, a defence that is well-organised and hard to unlock, and a good aggressive kicking game. Add to that the mercurial genius of Simon Zebo, who has been in terrific form at full-back, and it’s not hard to understand their success.
Still Glasgow have been playing pretty well themselves, at least when they have been able to field something like their first-choice XV as they are doing today, and they are aware that Munster have already lost one cup match on the road, being narrowly defeated by Leicester thanks to a monster last-minute penalty kicked by Owen Williams. So they are certainly not invincible, away from Thomond Park anyway. In truth they were decidedly stodgy in that game at Welford Road.
If Glasgow get enough front-foot ball, they can score tries against anyone. If they are patient the opportunities will come. They know they let themselves down in the highly-charged emotional atmosphere of Thomond Park the week after Foley’s death when they were in effect knocked out of the match in the first 20 minutes. I’m pleased to see the nimble-footed Mark Bennett starting at 13 while Stuart Hogg is due a really big match.
Edinburgh go to play Harlequins at The Stoop. Their home game against them was quite extraordinary, unlikely to be repeated. Still they can go all out to win, conscious that their last match is at home against the Romanian club, Timisoara. That said, Edinburgh’s form has been so topsy-turvy that I wouldn’t bet against them beating Harlequins and then losing to the Romanians.
With the Six Nations only three weeks away Vern Cotter will surely be delighted to see Willem Nel back in action for the first time in months, though his joy may be tempered by the realisation that Alasdair Dickinson is again on the injured list. Edinburgh haven’t once been able to field their first-choice front row of Dickinson, Ford and Nel this season, one reason perhaps for their inconsistency.
No doubt Cotter will be keeping his fingers crossed this week and next, hoping that none of his key players is injured. Three at least might be almost irreplaceable. Meanwhile Alex Dunbar has had his longest injury-free run for a couple of years and, perhaps in consequence, is playing formidably well. Long may that continue. He provides a solidity in midfield that no other inside centre can match.
Meanwhile this should be quite a weekend, and the Glasgow-Munster clash is surely the biggest club game played in Scotland for almost a couple of years.