IF IT’S true about it always being darkest just before the break of dawn then Scotland are a shoo-in for the Six Nations Championship when it arrives early next February because it looks pretty bleak out there.
It seems a long time ago now, but this time last year Edinburgh were three from four in Europe (wins, not losses) and Glasgow were riding high in the league. Both squads have been strengthened. Glasgow currently boast eight props on their books, not that you would notice. The old failings are still evident and our professional teams appear to have unearthed several new ones. The inability to execute basic skills, or the lack of confidence which causes that problem, seems to be contagious because the pro teams have caught the disease from their returning Test players.
Both sides have already exited the Heineken Cup just halfway through the pool stage and neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow is currently troubling the play-off places of the RaboDirect Pro12, although Gregor Townsend’s Warriors are just one point off Munster, who occupy fourth place. At least one of them is guaranteed to pick up points in the next two matches with the historic inter-city derbies coming up in the fixture list. Glasgow host Edinburgh at Scotstoun on Friday and the capital club return the favour a week on Saturday. The matches mean different things to different people. For journalists it’s a chance to take a couple of clichés off the shelf, dust them down and talk about how much more earthy and welcoming Glasgow is than its East Coast rival.
For fans, the derby offers a chance to see how the other half lives, with Edinburgh supporters getting their first look at Scotstoun. Hopefully they’ll like what they see, even if the feelings are tinged with a little envy.
For those who are a little closer to the action the back-to-back, inter-city matches can mean a host of different things.
Michael Bradley and Gregor Townsend
That run to the Heineken Cup semi-finals last season proved a mixed blessing for Edinburgh coach Bradley.
It diverted attention away from his side’s gormless league form but, now we know just how good the team can be, it is a rod with which to whack the Irish coach. Edinburgh are so far short of last year’s form that Bradley will almost certainly leave the club at the season’s end when his contract is up. At least with twin derby wins and the 1872 Cup in the trophy cabinet, he would have some ammunition with which to fight his corner when he has to sit down with SRU chief executive Mark Dodson in the coming weeks.
Bradley’s Glasgow counterpart Townsend may be under less pressure but he is under no less scrutiny. He got the Glasgow post in odd circumstances and he still hasn’t quite been forgiven for that fact. Europe has been horrible – three defeats from three so far with a tough match this afternoon against Castres away. A handy run of six league wins came to an ugly end as his team fell to Munster at Thomond Park without ever standing up, never mind fighting. Glasgow still have a shout of a RaboDirect Pro12 play-off place but, while no one questions his knowledge of the game, the jury is still deliberating Townsend’s ability to get the best out of this Glasgow squad. Double derby triumphs would go some way to helping them make up their mind.
THE ‘ONE-CAP’ WONDERS:
Tom Brown (1 cap), Duncan Weir (2 caps), Rob Harley (1 cap), Lee Jones (4 caps), Tom Ryder (2 caps), Ed Kalman (2 caps and injured), Jon Welsh (1 cap and injured)
OK, I know, Kalman and Weir both have two Test appearances to their name and Jones played in four of last season’s Six Nations games before being pole-axed in Dublin but all the above players are essentially in the same boat. They have reached the top of the tree, but only momentarily, and now, having been given a taste of international rugby, they are greedy for more. A good performance in the next two matches will help them get there.
It won’t be easy. Glasgow stand-off Weir and Edinburgh back Brown are not guaranteed a start for their club sides, while Brown and his team-mate Jones were always going to be up against it on the wing once Tim Visser had qualified for his adopted country.
Glasgow props Kalman and Welsh were both needed badly by Scotland in the autumn series but both men were sidelined by injury. Ryder, a lock, has the misfortune of filling the most competitive position in Scottish rugby. Harley was the hero of the summer tour with his late try against Samoa but he remains caught between two stools. He is small for a lock and slow for an international blindside flanker. If sheer hard graft can overcome these failings then Harley is still in with a shout.
Greig Tonks, Stuart McInally, Pat MacArthur, Peter Murchie, Grant Gilchrist, Ryan Wilson, Scott Wight, Chris Fusaro, Peter Horne, Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour
Whoever Murrayfield appoint in Andy Robinson’s stead will bring fresh ideas and almost certainly draft in new personnel. Any change at the top offers a wealth of opportunities for the players on the fringe of the international squad. Many of the above names will fancy their chances given Scotland’s recent record, especially those who are going head to head with their main rivals. The twin derbies have effectively replaced the old international trial.
Glasgow backs Horne and Dunbar (if his ankle recovers) know that they need to outshine the Edinburgh duo of Matt Scott and Nick De Luca if they are to hold out any hope of appearing at Twickenham in Scotland’s Six Nations opener on Saturday, 2 February.
Seymour, the Glasgow winger, will be praying for a chance to showcase his speed up against the master finisher Tim Visser. If Gilchrist can make a mess of Glasgow’s lineout then the big lock has an opportunity to dislodge the Warriors’ skipper, Al Kellock, from the national line-up. Edinburgh full-back Tonks knows that he has to put both Murchie and Stuart Hogg in the shade if he wants to earn that first cap. Glasgow stand-off Wight will sense that Edinburgh’s Greig Laidlaw is vulnerable at No.10 and Glasgow’s McInally will bang heads with Edinburgh back row rival David Denton.
There are mouthwatering and very personal arm wrestles going on all over the field.
Al Kellock, Ryan Grant, Dougie Hall
All three Warriors will want to show their former employers just what they allowed to leave. Strangely, there are no former Glasgow players in Edinburgh’s ranks (unless you count the apprentices Sean Kennedy and Rob McAlpine).
WP Nel, Josh Strauss
Neither of the two imported “project” players, Edinburgh’s Nel and Glasgow’s Strauss, has set the heather alight just yet although it’s early days and both have done respectably well. They were recruited with the long-term goal of being Scottish qualified on residency grounds after three years and the derbies are a chance for each man to show what he would bring to the national squad come the 2015 World Cup. If Strauss can outperform David Denton/Netani Talei and Nel can keep a lid on Ryan Grant at the set scrum, the twin “Saffas” will have gone a long way towards staking their long-term claims.
John Barclay, Ross Ford
One man on each side has been a world class operator in the recent past but both are playing well below their capabilities for reasons that maybe even they don’t fully understand. The derby spotlight may allow them to revisit past glories. Edinburgh hooker Ford must fix his throwing because, when it crumbles, the rest of his game follows. Glasgow openside Barclay has to compete far better at the breakdown, where he once reigned supreme for club and country.
As the oldest rugby rivalry outside the international arena the Edinburgh/Glasgow derby matches have a life all of their own, as befits a fixture which was first played 140 years ago.
However, there are a host of fascinating sub-plots being played out on the pitch: skirmishes and battles within the overall war that will go a long way to deciding the eventual outcome.
Who knows, two matches of electrifying, pulsating and skilful rugby may even breathe some belief back into Scottish Rugby and give everyone a seasonal lift.