There’s more than pride and points at stake when the pro clubs clash on Thursday, finds Iain Morrison
AFTER twin rounds of Heineken Cup action, the focus switches from Europe to events a little closer to home. The 1872 Cup kicks off on Boxing Day at Murrayfield with Glasgow looking for an unprecedented fifth successive win in what is the oldest club fixture in world rugby.
The two Scottish teams have experienced vastly different form. Glasgow started the season with six wins on the bounce and topped the RaboDirect Pro12, since when they have gone into a miniature meltdown, losing four of their last six outings including three matches at their previously impregnable Scotstoun stronghold. It is coach Gregor Townsend’s first real crisis at the club and how he handles it will tell us much about the man.
Edinburgh started the season in much the same way that they finished the last campaign, with five losses in the opening six matches, but they are turning things around. Since that disastrous start, Alan Solomons’ side had managed to move up to just one place below Glasgow in the league by yesterday after winning five of their last seven matches, including a 43-point win over Connacht, Friday’s arm wrestle against Leinster and that victory at Kingsholm.
If it impressed almost everyone else in the country, that win on the road against Gloucester failed to turn Stuart Hogg’s head. “I watched the BT Sport rugby programme and got the feeling Gloucester haven’t been going very well,” said Glasgow’s Hawick-raised fullback when asked about Thursday’s rivals who, traditionally, hoover up most of the talent coming out of the Borders. “I play for Glasgow now,” he insisted, before adding with a laugh: “Everyone hates Edinburgh.”
It is said mostly for effect but the 1872 Cup remains raw and bloody, an intense feral affair that means more than just league points. A few years back Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray had a to-do while Scott MacLeod and Chris Fusaro were both red-carded for fighting. It matters.
Thursday’s encounter is a trip into the unknown for many, given that Solomons has imported almost an entire starting team. Fourteen players in all have joined since last season, many of them South African like the coach himself, who acknowledges the importance of the inter-city rivalry.
“Tradition is very, very important,” he said. “It’s the oldest derby and to be involved is an absolute privilege.”
Solomon’s latest recruit is stand-off Tony Fenner, a Englishman who first moved to New Zealand before turning out for South Africa’s Southern Kings. He has signed a short-term contract to provide cover at stand-off where Edinburgh have been playing Greig Tonks, a specialist fullback who has done a very decent shift at ten. That has allowed Jack Cuthbert to play in his favoured 15 shirt where he looks infinitely happier than he does on the wing.
He has Glasgow cousins who support Edinburgh while proudly sporting, you guessed it, their Warriors shirts.
Cuthbert wasn’t the only one to shine at Kingsholm. Roddy Grant took his chance to lift the man of the match award and he backed it up against Leinster. He must be given the start in the 1872 matches as the form flanker. Edinburgh just may have lucked upon their best starting XV but there are plenty who continue to question all the foreign imports.
“How many Scottish players in the Edinburgh team now? I am not so sure?” was Hogg’s mischievous response when asked whether this game was still an unofficial national trial. “You could say it’s a kind of trial but at the end of the day it is Edinburgh/Glasgow, the 1872 Cup is up for grabs and bragging rights for a year. It’s massive for us.”
It’s massive for both clubs. Edinburgh need a win to keep their nascent recovery from being stillborn and they have the momentum behind them. Glasgow need victory to prevent their current hiccup becoming a full-blown crisis and they may need to look to their recent past. Townsend wants his team to play with pace and panache but sometimes discretion is called for. Glasgow may be better advised to play with less speed and more accuracy, to grind out a win in conditions that are forecast to be miserable and on a Murrayfield pitch that will be heavy. Townsend’s team needs to revert to the dogged determination of the Sean Lineen era before trying to emulate the free-scoring, Barbarian rugby from the latter part of last season.
If Chris Cusiter or Henry Pyrgos starts at scrum-half then the Warriors coach probably agrees. If Niko Matawalu gets the nod at nine then Glasgow will be looking to run Edinburgh off the park.
It’s a fascinating conundrum. Townsend’s instincts scream one thing while cold reason argues the opposite and the final destination of the 1872 Cup could rest with his decision.
Talking heads – derby chat from the No.9s
What is the mood in your respective camps going into the first round of the 1872 Cup on Thursday?
Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh) Hopefully, it’s going in the right direction. I feel as though the squad is in a much better place than the last few times we have gone into this derby.
Chris Cusiter (Glasgow) We were frustrated and disappointed by our Heineken Cup results so are keen to get back to winning ways in the league. This game is huge for us.
It’s a Boxing Day fixture and we occasionally get a few swinging arms. Is that just a sign of how much this match matters?
GL Yeah, I think so, for both sides the game is highly charged. There is a lot of passion which is what makes the fixture good fun for the players and for the fans.
CC That brings back memories of Scott MacLeod and Chris Fusaro! It’s an intense game and things sometimes bubble over.
Does the timing of the fixture ruin Christmas or is that just the lot of the professional athlete?
GL It’s just the luck of the draw when you are a professional athlete. That’s when the game is so the boys just need to adapt and overcome it.
CC We accepted that when we signed the contract. I was injured last year so I was able to relax a bit but I’d rather be playing.
Can you sum up the underlying ethos behind your respective clubs?
GL It has been changing and we’re getting back to hard graft. That’s where this squad is going to and I think that’s been coming over in our performances in the last few games.
CC Hard work. We are a team that works hard, stays humble and always remembers how much effort is needed to win.
You know each other so well, where do you see a weakness in the opposition?
GL I don’t want to give too much away (laughs). Glasgow have been going well for over a season now and they’ve done well to get to the playoffs. In the last few games they have not reached the usual standards they set themselves so we’ll definitely have a good look at the videos and see where other teams have went well against them.
CC Nice try! Edinburgh have changed a lot so some of their players are not as familiar as they used to be. If anything perhaps they are a little up and down and if they have a weakness it is probably their inconsistency. When they are on form they are very, very good.
Do you want to disclose your own club’s weaknesses?
GL No! Just in case Glasgow haven’t noticed.
CC We are similar to Edinburgh. We had a couple of poor performances in the Heineken Cup. We were very consistent at the start of the season but we have to get back to the basics now.
Where will the match be won and lost?
GL These matches are traditionally won and lost up front, these are always the big challenges. Unfortunately the [Murrayfield] pitch isn’t looking too hot out there but up front, the platform for both sides is very, very important to be able to play off the back of that.
CC I hope it won’t be the referee or goal kickers. These games tend to be very tight so the team that can show some skill under pressure will deserve the win.
Both teams have arguably had better form on the road, are you happy with the first fixture being in Edinburgh?
GL We’re happy to be playing at home first. Glasgow might feel that the pressure is off them a little bit in the first game but for me personally, and I think the whole squad feels like that, we’re more than happy to be at home in the first game.
CC I’m not sure it matters but I do think that Edinburgh’s pitch will be a factor.
Describe Glasgow Rugby in three adjectives?
GL Er, (pauses for thought), hard-working, skilful.
CC Skilful, hard-working, passionate.
And Edinburgh Rugby?
GL We’re hard working and we are hard to beat...even if that is too many words.
CC Powerful, risk-averse, dangerous.
Who, in the opposition ranks, will keep you awake the night before the match?
GL I don’t know if he’ll keep me awake but Niko Matawalu is a wonderful rugby player. I think that sometimes he doesn’t know himself what he’s going to do. Glasgow have a good blend of players so whether Matawalu or Chris Cusiter plays nine tends to show how they [Glasgow] are going to play the game.
CC No one will keep me awake but I’ve been impressed by Cornel du Preez, he looks like one to watch and Greig Laidlaw makes them tick, he’s very smart.
What would you be doing on Boxing Day if you weren’t playing rugby?
GL Em. Not very much. Chilling out with the family in Jed and catching up with a few mates.
CC I’d be watching Aberdeen Select against the Aberdeen Exiles at Grammar’s ground. They play in any weather.
What is your one wish for your respective clubs?
GL Well, we want to make the play-offs for the RaboDirect.
CC To go further in the league than we did last year.
What are your predictions for 2014?
GL Continued improvement for Edinburgh. If we can pick up some points in the next few games we have a chance of making the play-offs.
CC Glasgow will get back to winning ways at Scotstoun, we will make the play-offs and we will go further than we did last season.
And a prediction for Thursday’s match?
GL I had better go with a home win, a tight one.
CC Our fans will be louder than Edinburgh’s.