It’s called the 1872 Cup, and the name is not entirely bogus. The first Inter-City match between Edinburgh and Glasgow was indeed played then. Nevertheless, it’s also a good example of invented tradition. Though for a long time, perhaps up to the early 1950s, the Inter-City match was one of the highlights of the season and fiercely contested, there was no Edinburgh club and no Glasgow one. The two teams were scratch sides, selected from the many clubs in the two cities. It was of course an honour to be picked, but the match was more like the first of the trials for the international side. Then from the mid-fifties it lost some of its old significance when the SRU introduced the District Championship. The strength of the South meant that the Inter-City was quite often far from being the most important match in the competition.
So it was only with the advent of professionalism that Edinburgh and Glasgow became clubs, rather than scratch selects, and the Christmas-New Year double-header began to acquire its modern significance. Even then, for the first decade of professionalism crowds were small, smaller often than the amateur Inter-City had attracted between the two world wars. That there will be a crowd of 20,000 at Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon indicates that the professional game has at last acquired something like the following in Scotland which it has had for some 15 years in Ireland. The invented tradition has taken root.
Edinburgh won the Cup last year, to most people’s surprise, Glasgow being the outstanding team in the Pro12. League form in any sport is not always translated into cup ties. The double-header may marginally favour the team that is away in the first leg; they know precisely what they must do on home ground in the return. In theory this may make Glasgow favourites to regain the trophy.
Edinburgh, however, are a better side than they were 12 months ago, despite being weakened by the departure to Bath of David Denton, outstanding in the World Cup. The arrival of John Hardie probably cancels this out, even though Denton plays at eight, Hardie at seven. Even in the absence of Alasdair Dickinson from the front-row, Edinburgh may have the upper hand in the set scrum which will enable them to get on the front foot – though it may be too much to hope that any superiority there will be seized as an opportunity to move the ball rather than to win penalties.
Glasgow have by some way the better, more skilful and more imaginative set of backs, though it’s a pity that Alex Dunbar is missing from at least the first match. On the other hand, Edinburgh’s defence record has been generally good this season, at least when they have been at full strength, and, moreover, rain is forecast for tomorrow afternoon. So I would expect Finn Russell to be at least as willing to kick as to run the ball in attack, using diagonals to the wing or chips into space behind an on-rushing defence. Glasgow can win ugly as they did in Wales against the Scarlets, and beautifully as they did the previous week at Scotstoun.
The two matches are of course being billed as unofficial Scotland trials. No doubt they will be that to some extent. Yet I would be surprised if Vern Cotter didn’t already know his probable line-up, barring injuries, for the Calcutta Cup in the first weekend of February.
“Barring injuries” makes for a pretty big exception, given that Glasgow will be playing three rounds of the European Champions Cup in January. Still, if miracles happen, and he has a full complement of fit players to choose from, one wouldn’t expect the Calcutta Cup XV to show more than one or two changes from the side so narrowly and heart-breakingly beaten by Australia in the World Cup quarter-final.
Alex Dunbar, absent injured during the World Cup, will surely play if fit, and not only because, now that Brian O’Driscoll has retired, he is the best centre over the ball after the tackle in the northern hemisphere.
The significance of the 1872 Cup matches for the forthcoming Six Nations is also somewhat reduced by the likelihood that around a third of the XV that take the field against England will come from clubs outwith Scotland. Greig Laidlaw, Richie Gray and David Denton are surely certainties, Sean Maitland and Blair Cowan probables. Nevertheless, there are a number of individual contests to savour: Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Grayson Hart at scrum-half, for instance, and Matt Scott competing against Mark Bennett and Peter Horne in the centre, while Ryan Grant and Adam Ashe will be setting out to prove that they should be in the Six Nations squad. In short, the two matches should be as enlightening as one hopes they will be entertaining.