So the latest version of what used to be the Celtic League kicks off, and looks a pretty rum affair with the addition of the two South African clubs who were in search of a new home after being booted out of Super Rugby. Nobody knows what they will bring to the party – on the field of play anyway; we do know that they bring in more revenue from television, which is why they have been made welcome.
The drawback is of course that a 14-club league is at least two clubs too many. Twenty-six matches can’t be fitted into the calendar. So we have the division into two Conferences, and then some cross-conference matches, but the upshot is a league in which nobody plays everybody else home and away; and this is unsatisfactory. Still, let’s welcome the South Africans. At least they don’t inflict a pre-kick-off haka on us.
Edinburgh will have played the Cardiff Blues before you can read this. They lost to them twice last season; so winning away would be a surprise. Edinburgh’s main recruitment has been their new head coach, Richard Cockerill, a man steeped in the uncompromising traditions of Leicester rugby. The hope is that he will bring some much needed stiffening to his new charges.
Up-front Edinburgh look good enough. As for the back division for this first match, it’s pertinent to observe that none of them would be better than third-choice for Scotland’s autumn internationals. That said, there were days when some of Cockerill’s Leicester teams gave the impression of believing that only softies let the ball travel beyond the fly-half. They were the great masters of stuff-it-up-the-jumper rugby. Well, I guess that Edinburgh are just now at a stage when results matter more than performance, winning ugly being preferable to losing pretty.
Cockerill has been called in to change Edinburgh. Over in the west, Dave Rennie has a different brief. It’s to carry on from what Gregor Townsend achieved and take it a stage further. There are good young Scottish players coming through, quite a lot of them indeed, as, to be fair, there are at Edinburgh too. But much of the recruitment at Glasgow has been aimed at plugging the gaps when Gregor calls up a dozen or more players for Scotland squads and duty.
Last season’s falling away in the league when for the first time in recent years they were unable to qualify for the play-offs has been generally, and I think fairly, attributed to the absence of commanding players who weren’t qualified for Scotland. To put it another way, in Glasgow’s title-chasing years they had Niko Matawalu and Leone Nakarawa. Then they hadn’t. Now Matawalu is back, even though with Ali Price, Henry Pyrgos and young George Horne Glasgow are well equipped at No 9. Matawalu has been no great success in England, first with Bath, then with Exeter, perhaps because he was kept on too tight a rein. But my guess is he will flower again at Glasgow, especially when used as a game-changing replacement in the last third or quarter of a match.
Glasgow start against Connacht tonight without Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Jonny Gray and Huw Jones (who hasn’t yet played for the club). Connacht themselves are in a transitional stage, their coach Pat Lam, who did wonders there, having moved to Bristol where the chalice from which coaches drink seems to the distant viewer to be laced with poison. Nevertheless Galway, though a delightful city to visit, rarely extends generous hospitality to visiting rugby teams – even though, in what was a revenge match, Glasgow ran up 40 points at the Sportsground a year ago.
Glasgow have Adam Ashe starting at No 8. With Josh Strauss having moved to Sale, Ashe has the chance to make the position his own. His own career or development has rather stalled in the last two years, principally, one supposes, because injuries have deprived him of a lot of rugby. So he hasn’t made the international breakthrough that seemed certain when he first appeared on the scene. His selection for this opening game, with captain Ryan Wilson on the flank beside him, looks like a vote of confidence from Rennie – confidence and encouragement.
Otherwise Alex Dunbar will be making his 100th appearance in a Glasgow jersey which, in view of his disregard for self-preservation, is fairly remarkable, while many will be interested to see how young Adam Hastings acquits himself if he comes on as a replacement.
He of course, as son of Gavin, carries a heavy burden of expectation on his young shoulders, though, from the little I’ve seen of him, he plays in a style more reminiscent of his Uncle Scott. Not that that lightens the burden.