Scotland coach has plenty to think about after Edinburgh win, writes Iain Morrison
IF THE 1872 Cup is a national trial of sorts, it threw up more questions than answers for Vern Cotter. Scotland’s Kiwi coach is back in New Zealand, taking a rare opportunity to catch up with friends and family over the holidays, but you can be sure that he will be poring over the videos of the two 1872 matches between Edinburgh and Glasgow, scouring the footage for any clues before picking his side to play France on his Six Nations debut come 7 February.
First up, Cotter has a problem of balance. Ten Glasgow players started the matches against Argentina and New Zealand in the autumn, including the entire outside back line, but Glasgow managed just two tries in 160 minutes of rugby against Edinburgh. The first was scored by Josh Strauss and the second by Niko Matawalu, neither of whom is available for Scotland in February.
In contrast, Edinburgh supplied just two front-row forwards in Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford, who did enough to suggest that they will take their place in the starting XV in Paris. Dickinson is the most improved scrummager in Scotland, Ford is back to something like his best form. The third member of the front-row triumvirate will be the cause of some lengthy chin stroking from Cotter.
At 34, Euan Murray is not old for a tighthead prop but he has never been the most athletic of front-row forwards, a problem that is only exacerbated by a long-term problem with a painful Achilles. Cotter is painfully short of options. Edinburgh’s two tightheads are ineligible as yet, while Glasgow’s Jon Welsh enjoyed mixed fortunes. He is short of games after shoulder surgery but he is also short of time with Paris looming.
Glasgow’s Gregor Townsend bemoaned the lack of urgency displayed by his team until it was too late and rated their performance in Friday’s second leg as the “poorest of the season”. Asked if it was time to kick some backsides, Townsend admitted as much. “I think it’s self evident,” he replied. “The players are all intelligent enough to know that you have to win games to make play-offs and you have to play much better than that to win games. So they are acutely aware that the performance wasn’t good enough.”
What Cotter must decide is whether this 1872 Cup reversal – Edinburgh won 20-8 on Friday to claim a 26-24 aggregate victory – is a mere blip in Glasgow’s progress or the signs of something more malignant within the Warriors’ camp. One thing is certain, Edinburgh stole some of Glasgow’s favourite clothes, tried them on and obviously liked what they saw in the mirror.
When asked about how his team had triumphed, Edinburgh’s skipper was in no doubt. “I think our physicality was a lot better and defensively we were a lot more confrontational,” Mike Coman said after the game. Glasgow used to have some sort of monopoly on physicality and confrontation, at least in Scottish rugby circles, and it might not be a coincidence that Glasgow were without their two first-choice flankers for Friday’s match at Murrayfield.
Chris Fusaro is the conscience of this Glasgow team and it’s difficult to imagine them being quite so tame with him in harness. Rob Harley is the workhorse and a thorough nuisance at the breakdown in a thoroughly professional way. The other man Glasgow missed on Friday was Mark Bennett, who injured his hamstring against the All Blacks. Like Fusaro, Bennett is another who punches above his weight and makes things happen.
Glasgow’s players were all waiting for someone else to make something happen rather than doing so themselves. Or more accurately, they looked to their two Fijians to get them out of jail on Friday and while the combined talents of Matawalu and Leone Nakarawa almost managed it, they also gave away some cheap penalties which allowed Edinburgh to boss the final quarter.
Jonny Gray was quiet on Friday but he is allowed an off day, while Edinburgh’s Ben Toolis proved he is one for the future. The young Australian showed up well at the sidelines and carries effectively too. This year’s Rugby World Cup comes too soon for him, never mind the Six Nations, but he’ll be in the mix for the World Cup in 2019.
Josh Strauss doesn’t qualify for Scotland until the World Cup and he had a good ding dong with David Denton. The former made more yards with the ball in hand thanks to Edinburgh’s insistence of tackling high but Denton showed up well in bits, including a kick block on Matawalu which set up wing Tim Visser’s first try.
The Dutchman’s twin tries made a compelling argument during the game for Cotter to consider him but after the match a very decent argument against his selection came from the unexpected quarter of Visser’s own mouth. “A lot of my tries are simply finishing what other people create and I don’t think [Edinburgh] are creating enough to date and I think it is something we need to improve upon as a team and I think we know that,” he said.
At international level, pure finishers are a luxury few can afford. All the best wingers are able to create something for themselves, by footwork, aerial ability, positioning, intelligence, angle of run and sometimes by strength and/or speed, two qualities that Visser has in abundance. The Dutchman took his chances well but Tommy Seymour remains the best winger in Scotland.
The Glasgow man was always quick but he has added strength and the ability to twist and wriggle out of contact. Seymour is very competitive in the air and, like Visser, he has a nose for an interception which is an art in itself. All wingers should be equally comfortable at full-back and you can’t say that about Visser just yet.
Alex Dunbar and Matt Scott almost cancelled each other out, although it would be nice to see both men look for space more often than contact, though, in fairness, there is precious little of it in the modern midfield.
Inside them Finn Russell was, well, Finn Russell. He made two clean breaks, one in the first half when he collected his own chip kick and another in the second 40 with a show-and-go but he also got hoodwinked for Visser’s first try. The stand-off was marking Phil Burleigh’s dummy run on an out-to-in angle instead of Visser who was going the other way… with the ball.
Young stand-offs make mistakes and better that he does it now that in Paris come 7 February. Despite Friday night’s result Russell should take his place in the Scotland XV in Paris alongside a good number of his Glasgow colleagues.