IT WASN’T a great night for Scottish clubs as Glasgow, Edinburgh and the London Scots all fell short on Friday.
The Exiles can perhaps be forgiven, losing to Worcester Warriors at Sixways in the Championship play-off after running them so close in Richmond. Even on home turf Worcester didn’t have things all their own way, the Scots opening the scoring to level the aggregate scores before finishing the match a distant second.
Immediately after Edinburgh’s Challenge Cup loss to Gloucester the question on every journalist’s lips was would Alan Solomons be able to pick his side up, both physically and mentally, after that final disappointment. The coach insisted they would be fine. He could hardly say otherwise, but he was proved badly wrong.
Had Glasgow been beaten in a cup final, you fancy Gregor Townsend would have changed perhaps ten to 12 of the starting team with exactly that problem in mind, to keep things fresh and ensure any hangover takes place off the field rather than on it, but Solomons is more conservative and, he might argue with some justification, Edinburgh lack the depth of their inter-city rivals.
The South African changed just one back, Jack Cuthbert whistled up only because Greig Tonks was injured, and the coach made just three changes in the pack, one of which was forced by Mike Coman’s injury. He could have rested Ross Ford who has looked tired of late, as well he might. The hooker has already played 12 league matches and seven European ties on top of eight internationals to date with more games to come.
The point is that Solomons has options at hooker, good options, who must be champing at the bit about their lack of opportunities. The veteran Neil Cochrane has been excellent, especially at the breakdown, a real revelation, while we simply don’t know about George Turner who has always impressed at club level. The hooker has played one match off the bench for Edinburgh and even that was as an emergency winger. Prop Rory Sutherland would have brought energy and aggression at loosehead, Solomons had options but stuck with the tired and tested.
While Edinburgh’s sixth place hopes went up in smoke in Newport, Glasgow’s dreams of a home semi-final took a dent with that defeat by the Ospreys who looked like serious contenders. Glasgow have now slipped back to second place following yesterday’s dramatic draw between Ulster and Munster that came with the last-gasp touchline conversion by Paddy Jackson when Ulster were short-handed, flanker Ian Henderson seeing red after a clash of heads at the breakdown. One point is all that separates the top four sides; with the top three all on 70.
Glasgow would have preferred an Ulster win, which would have propelled the province above Glasgow, who would then only need to beat them next Saturday to guarantee a home semi. As things stand, Glasgow are ahead of Munster, with whom they are equal on points, only because Townsend’s team have won 15 to Munster’s 14 victories. Going into the final round of matches, the top four will all be looking for bonus points in addition to their wins and you have to think that the Ospreys [against Connacht] and Munster [against the Dragons] have a better chance of securing one than Glasgow do against the doughty Ulstermen.
Glasgow were undone by two issues on Friday, the set piece and the players’ inability to look after the ball in contact in conditions that didn’t make it easy. Appropriately enough, the match ended when Fraser Lyle knocked on in the tackle.
Glasgow lost three lineouts to squint throws and the front row conceded about the same number of penalties at the set scrum (although they won one back early on). But the Ospreys bossed the breakdown where Glasgow have no one who can match Justin Tuperic’s poaching instincts.
Leone Nakarawa is a handful in attack with his octopus arms always looking to offload in the heavy traffic, but twice in the second half with Glasgow chasing the match the big Fijian coughed up soft turnovers that put his team back to square one. Elsewhere, Duncan Weir last started a league match back in December and it showed. The normally assured place kicker missed a couple of penalties, one tricky, the other much simpler, which he would usually have slotted blindfolded.
What probably hurt Townsend most is that the Ospreys did to Glasgow what Glasgow like to do to others. They were slicker with the ball in hand, they outfought Glasgow at the breakdown and they boxed a little bit smarter too. The home side’s kicking game was streets ahead of than anything that Glasgow managed, which meant that the Ospreys dominated territory, while their second try, snapped up by scrum-half Rhys Webb, was straight from the training paddock. A beautiful piece of deception at the lineout was followed by a chip and chase by Webb which illustrated why he has overtaken Mike Phillips as Wales’ number one No.9.
Glasgow will need a much-improved performance against Ulster next Saturday if they are to hold on to that precious second place and the home advantage that comes with it.