One can’t pretend that our clubs’ record in what used to be the Heineken and is now the European Champions Cup is impressive. Sadly, this isn’t surprising. As I feel obliged repeatedly to point out in this column, Scottish rugby has always had to make consistent improvement simply to stand still and not fall further behind our competitors.
As things are now, and have been for the past four or five years, we are managing to do just that. Nevertheless, in terms of resources, the odds are still heavily against Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their support base remains low. Admittedly Glasgow regularly fill Scotstoun, but it’s a small ground, and the inter-city matches draw a respectable crowd at Murrayfield. But these are improvements made from what was a very low base.
I write this not to depress or to make excuses in advance. It’s merely a statement of how things are. Two years ago, Glasgow reached the quarter-final of the Champions Cup and played some brilliant rugby in doing so, only to be blown aside by the eventual champions, Saracens. Disappointing, but no disgrace. Last year’s venture, in a tough pool – but they are all tough now – got off to a bad start when they failed to take even a losing bonus point from their visit to Exeter and never really recovered. They did beat Exeter in the return match at Scotstoun, doing so thanks to a burst of brilliantly audacious tries in the second half – after having been comprehensively outplayed for the first 40 minutes.
Tomorrow they are hosts to Saracens, and, while this may be seen as offering a chance of revenge, any “glass half-empty” person may think it likely to put a kybosh on their campaign from day one. Saracens have been in rampant form, while Glasgow have been not entirely convincing even when winning and have one horrid blot on their record this season – that disastrous first half against Southern Kings when they played like a team who had met each other for the first time an hour or so before kick-off.
It’s a pity that the forecast is vile. Saracens, with Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell at half-back, have as good a kicking game as anyone except perhaps Leinster and Munster (when Conor Murray is fit), and they will not only put the Glasgow back three under pressure but, one assumes, put the ball into positions from which their powerful pack can set up a driving maul. Glasgow have been mauling quite well themselves, without, however, suggesting that they are capable of resisting a good mauling team without conceding penalties and, probably, yellow cards.
With Stuart Hogg injured and Finn Russell displaying his talents in Paris, one can’t pretend that this Glasgow team is quite the attacking force it was, well though Ruaridh Jackson and Adam Hastings have been playing. On the other hand, Huw Jones in a Glasgow shirt is now looking like the player he has been for Scotland, while – fingers crossed – Alex Dunbar seems to be fit and injury-free for the first time in too long. I reckon that Dunbar/Huw Jones may be the best Scottish centre pairing. It’s interesting, too, that Ali Price’s experience and game-management have secured him the nod over young George Horne, who will no doubt come on raring to go around the hour mark.
But the outcome will probably depend on Glasgow’s ability at least to contain the immensely powerful Saracens pack. They will be out-weighted and in danger of being overpowered. Coach Dave Rennie has named the strongest available to him and there is a fair amount of experience on the bench too. It’s not a case of power against flair, because there is no shortage of flair in this Saracens team either. What one can say with certainty is that if Glasgow can contrive to win tomorrow afternoon, it will be an achievement to match anything in the club’s history.
For Edinburgh, being in the Champions Cup is an achievement in itself. They too face a horrid start, away to Vern Cotter’s Montpellier. The one thing to be said in favour of this is that playing your first match away from home against a very strong opponent actually puts a little less pressure on you. If your first match is at home, then you really can’t afford to lose it, no matter the quality of the opposition. But you can lose round one away from home and still hope to recover.
The pool is made up of Toulon and Newcastle. The former are not the force they were, the latter have made a wretched start to their season and may well be more preoccupied with the threat of relegation from the Premiership than with the Champions Cup. It’s not absurd for Edinburgh to look for home and away wins against both.