AN UNEXPECTED day off has allowed Glasgow to add another day’s preparation to this week’s RaboDirect PRO12 and revive belief as they seek to use rivals Edinburgh as a springboard back to form.
The Heineken Cup is where the Warriors sought to make the biggest improvement this season, but that has gone by the wayside and with the disappointment subsiding there may be a positive side-effect in that nothing now vies with the RaboDirect PRO12 Grand Final for attention on the horizon.
Thankfully, both Edinburgh and Glasgow coaches avoided the age-old cliché yesterday, that the “form book goes out of the window”, though Warriors coach Gregor Townsend may have more reason than counterpart Alan Solomons to believe that to be the case. The gloom enveloping Scotstoun after a run of three home defeats only worsened on Friday night when the day’s rain forced the postponement of the match with Treviso, an hour before kick-off.
Townsend is hopeful, however, that the extra training time may pay dividends as his team prepares for two games inside a week.
“It was very frustrating at the time,” said the coach. “Players prepare for a game all day and not to get that release is frustrating for them, and for the five who were selected to play in that game but have not made the team this week it is doubly difficult.
“But we have had an extra couple of days of preparation for Edinburgh and I believe that is an ideal way to go into the game. We were in on Sunday and we have had a full day today. We’ve been able to cover a fair bit.
“This game is massive for the players. These are the best games of the season in terms of crowd numbers. We’re playing against people we know, rivals in a lot of cases for positions in the Scotland team. It is the oldest club game in the world so there is a lot of history. It is a huge privilege to play in a fixture like this. When I was at the Borders we used to be very jealous of the 1872 Cup.
“It is an opportunity for players to do well individually, but more importantly to do well for the club. Last year these fixtures really helped us to move up the table, but we know how tough it will be to win, especially after seeing Edinburgh’s results over the last few weeks.”
The Warriors’ lengthy domination of this fixture could be under threat after a poor run of form in the west of the country and a notable rise in the east. It is tempting to jump into the festive spirit and describe Boxing Day’s derby clash in pantomime terms with Edinburgh seemingly emerging as Cinderella and Glasgow turning into an ugly sister – Townsend did his best to play the part yesterday by initially banning his players from speaking to the media in response to a newspaper report he was unhappy with – were it not that rugby on Thursday provides the perfect opportunity to escape such nonsense.
What this game brings, the first in the traditional series with round two coming on New Year’s Day, is also a glorious opportunity for Scotland’s leading talent to go up against each other, for the pressure to rise with natural desires to prove oneself better than opposite numbers, both in the eyes of the public and Scotland coaches watching intently ahead of Six Nations squad selections.
Occasionally, that has had the effect of producing an unedifying stalemate of a game, but there are intriguing dynamics at work this year. Edinburgh have recently grasped a new game style and confidence, but it remains new, while this Warriors squad has hit some rocky ground but is undoubtedly capable of more than has been witnessed recently.
Townsend also continues to rotate positions, this week opting to shift Stuart Hogg from full-back to outside centre, joining Alex Dunbar in an intriguing new midfield. Underlining the quality Glasgow now possess, every player coming in is an internationalist. Sean Maitland moves to full-back so DTH van der Merwe returns on the left wing, Duncan Weir and new skipper Chris Cusiter are at half-back, prop Ryan Grant is back at loosehead, Tim Swinson and Tom Ryder pair up at lock and in the back row Rob Harley returns on the blindside.
There is no place for Niko Matawalu, the fleet-of-foot Fijian, which is no real surprise given the difficulties of sparkling currently on the heavy, cut-up Murrayfield turf, but, still, the match-ups across the park are fascinating. Hogg versus De Luca, Greig Laidlaw v Cusiter, Grant v Willem Nel, Ross Ford and his apprentice Pat MacArthur, and Swinson and Grant Gilchrist, both eager to start Scotland’s Six Nations, as are Ryan Wilson and David Denton, the respective No 8s.
The ability wrapped up in those duels alone points to an exciting contest, and Townsend acknowledged that cool heads will be crucial.
“We did that well last year and that will be the message from me and the other coaches,” he added. “In the build-up, the emotion will come through and we just have to make sure we keep it in check.
“It is obviously in the subconscious that we won at Murrayfield last year, but Edinburgh are different now, and probably more confident than they were a year ago. This is a new game.”