FEW players have defined Scottish rugby more over the past couple of years than Greig Laidlaw, the nuggety Borderer who has taken over the lead at Edinburgh and become a rock at the heart of Scotland’s struggles to become competitive.
But before Laidlaw appeared on the scene Chris Cusiter was the Scottish scrum-half with the bristling, aggressive reputation, the then Borders No 9 who you would want beside you in a battle. Cusiter has been plagued by serious injury since he returned from two years at Perpignan in the south of France, but is now back fit determined to prove that, at 31, he is far from ready for retirement.
His former international rival, Mike Blair, now plying his trade in the Premiership with Newcastle, is retired from the Test stage. While they offered a great choice of two styles, Cusiter and Laidlaw possess more similar traits. They remain different in some ways and could play together as Laidlaw remains a decent stand-off, but from kick-off at Murrayfield this afternoon they are arch enemies with a similar desperation to impose their game on the other; pivotal figures around which their teams will revolve in the opening 1872 Cup match.
Cusiter recalls early ‘tartan derbies’ with the Borders and he has revelled in the inter-city matches in the last few years. That is hardly surprising as Glasgow have claimed a monopoly on the trophy, but he is intrigued, excited even by the change going on along the M8. And, while eager to lock horns again with Laidlaw, he insists that their influence will not necessarily be on each other.
“I’ve obviously played in a few of these and they are always a bit tense, but that can often make them great games,” he said. “The players know each other well so they tend to cancel each other out a bit, though this year is a bit different because there have been a lot of changes at Edinburgh with new coaches and new players.
“It [battle with Laidlaw] is always a good match up. We know each other very well and I’m looking forward to taking him on again. We are very different players, different strengths and styles. He has been playing well in the last couple of games I have watched, so it will be a good challenge.
“But I am there to play well for Glasgow and to win the game for Glasgow, that is my focus. I can’t change my game because I am playing against a certain scrum-half. I want Glasgow to win and will do everything I can to help them win. I think that is the same all over the park. It is more about controlling the team tactically and getting the forwards to work the way you want them to. That is my challenge.”
The fact that both scrum-halves are also captain this week – Cusiter stepping into the void left by injured talisman Alastair Kellock – adds to the influence that both will wield. Cusiter insists that that dissipates from kick-off, as more players in these teams step up to the challenge of leading, but there will be fireworks in this game as there are too many Test-quality performers with egos and points to prove for there not to be. So the team, and skipper, that keeps a cool head longest, through brutal scrums, intense breakdown battles and big-hitting defence, is likely to emerge on the right side of the result.
These are two different sides and while Edinburgh have begun to get to grips with the demands of Alan Solomons, and are shaping up as a well-controlled side that knows how and where it wants to play, they lack the flair of the Warriors backs at this stage. Many will be intrigued to see how Stuart Hogg goes at 13 alongside Alex Dunbar, with as potent a back three as the Warriors have ever fielded.
The packs are well-matched and we expect the set-piece to be a terrific contest with no real dominator, so whether it is Glasgow’s attempts to stop Laidlaw and Greig Tonks controlling territory or Edinburgh’s bid to clip the Warriors’ wings, the scrap for ball at every tackle will again be the most significant battle-ground.
Cusiter said: “I am really excited to see Hoggy at 13. He is up against a guy who is much more experienced than him in Nick de Luca, and who is probably playing the best rugby of his career, so it’s a huge challenge for Hoggy but a good one. And we have an exciting back three but that is not usually where the game is won and lost.
“On a difficult pitch, it is more likely to be up front and the breakdown, where we struggled to get on top of Cardiff two weeks in a row. It is going to be huge and with their buys like [Cornell] du Preez and Roddy Grant playing well and disrupting, that is going to be a crucial area.”
Confidence is a major factor. Edinburgh come into the game with it rising while Glasgow’s has dipped after a run of four defeats. Cusiter did not hide from his side’s troubles and praised his opponents, providing an insight into the fixture and his side’s troubles drawn from a unique experience in the game.
“There is pressure on us to get back to winning ways but that is just the way things have gone,” he said. “Just because you have a little wobble does not mean there is nothing you can fix the next week.
“They [Edinburgh] are flying high and have done really well to win away from home in England, a huge result, and then to beat Leinster at home shows that they are confident and their system is starting to fall into place with the new coaches. The are playing really well and are a tough team to beat.
“But I remember it was after the Heineken last year when we went back to the league and started to play brilliantly. We did not lose a game at home for the rest of the year and some of the results were brilliant.
“We are in a tougher place just now, but we need to get back to basics a bit and remember what it was that made a success of last year. We have to focus on the contact area and being difficult to beat. That has been underlying the success we have had so we have to get that right all the time. We have to get a bit more balance, there is no reason we can’t get back to winning ways, though it will be a big challenge.
“It has probably got away from that a bit in the Heineken Cup in the last few weeks so we are trying to build that momentum again. It is hard, small subtle things that make a big difference to the outcome, but we have got to knuckle down, get back to basics and make ourselves tough to beat again.
“And these derby games will help. They are enjoyable, the crowds are good and you get a lot of Glasgow fans travelling through to Edinburgh and they tend to make a lot of noise. Then you come back to Scotstoun and it is usually a sell-out and the atmosphere is good. There is a real sense of occasion about it. It is the oldest derby fixture in the world and that helps make it a really enjoyable game.”
Laidlaw agreed, stating earlier this week that this game stands above all others in his season as it provides a great opportunity for domestic ‘bragging rights’. Some neutrals and Scotland coaches may hope both sides claim a victory apiece in the next week, as were one to win both matches it would leave the other with a real uphill climb to secure a play-off spot. Glasgow have slipped to fifth spot, ten points off leaders Munster but just four behind second-placed Ulster and with their game against Treviso (to be played in February) in hand. So talk of a crisis at Scotstoun is premature. Similar talk in the capital in September is now looking foolish after Edinburgh moved up to sixth. They are still eight points behind their Scottish rivals, and so need a victory to maintain hopes of climbing into play-off contention.
But, for players, two wins from two is what sacrificing Christmas and New Year excess is all about. “There won’t be much socialising after this first leg,” Cusiter insisted. “It will be pretty quiet between the games because we cannot afford not to play well at Scotstoun.
“We have lost three on the bounce there, which is just not acceptable. We have dropped down into mid-table so it is huge for us to pick up points and stay in the top four. We have had a good run the last few years but Edinburgh are the strongest they have been since I have been back. These are going to be tough games.”
That is exactly what supporters, and Scotland coaches, expect, and where Laidlaw and Cusiter will be key generals in battle.
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE