Allan Massie: Deciding factors in the 1872 upset
EDINBURGH’S defeat of Glasgow was a surprise, but not a great one after they ran them close in the first leg of the 1872 Cup at Scotstoun. Edinburgh have been improving, if fitfully, while Glasgow haven’t been at their best since the November internationals disrupted the Pro 12 season.
Afterwards, there were some saying that Edinburgh had worked out Glasgow’s style and learned how to respond effectively.
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There is doubtless some truth in this. The tactic of holding up the ball-carrier worked well, negating the threat offered by Josh Strauss especially. Since Strauss runs more upright than many No 8s, there is always a chance of pinning his arms to prevent an offload and preventing him from going to ground to provide clean ball to his scrum-half. Nevertheless, too much can be made of the value of reading the opposition’s game. Everyone after all knows how the All Blacks are going to play; it doesn’t mean you will beat them. Actually, the biggest surprise at Murrayfield was Edinburgh’s dominance of the lineout. They took Glasgow’s ball at least four times, which is unusual.
Edinburgh won the battle of the back-row too. There is no doubt that Glasgow are a better team when they have Rob Harley and Chris Fusaro on the flanks. In their absence, the Edinburgh back-row of Roddy Grant, David Denton and Mike Coman had a field day. Ross Ford was named man of the match, but the award might equally well have gone to Grant, Denton or Coman. Not for the first time one wonders just what Roddy Grant has to do to get a Scottish cap. I suppose he is reckoned not quite fast enough for 7, not quite big enough for 6. But he almost never has a bad game, never disappears from the action for a spell, and an awful lot of lesser players have represented Scotland in the last few years.
Another Edinburgh player to impress was young Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. He is still raw and makes errors of judgment – and I wish he would stop slapping petulantly at opposition players on the wrong side of a maul – but he is developing very fast, and outshone Niko Matawalu, both his box-kicking and passing being very much better. He is probably number four in the pecking order, but it is surely not long before he is going to be challenging Greig Laidlaw, Chris Cusiter and Henry Pyrgos.
These 1872 Cup matches are understandably seen as being the professional equivalent of the old national Trial games, with, of course, the significant difference that the result for the team matters more than individual performances. That said, it’s unlikely that Vern Cotter learned anything much that he didn’t already know.
With Pro12 matches this weekend and two rounds of European competition before the Six Nations, his main concern may be that injuries are avoided. The back-row of Harley, Adam Ashe and Blair Cowan went very well in November. But the first two are injured and, it seems, unlikely to be fit, or at least match-fit, for the first games of the tournament. There are, however, experienced replacements to choose from: Johnny Beattie and David Denton at 8, Kelly Brown, Alasdair Strokosch and John Barclay at 6, with, as remarked, Roddy Grant also staking a claim. Otherwise, the only problem in the pack is surely at tight-head. Euan Murray, who will be available for the French match, but not for the Welsh one on Sunday, 15 February, had a difficult time against Alastair Dickinson, whose scrummaging has improved greatly. It is hard to know how significant this is, because the effectiveness of props fluctuates from week to week, and is, in any case, subject to the caprices of referees.
What one can say is that whoever is at tighthead is likely to have a difficult hour if the French pick Thomas Domingo at loosehead.
The back division is, one assumes, more or less settled. In the absence of the injured Mark Bennett, Matt Scott will likely return to partner Alex Dunbar, even though he hasn’t yet regained his best form after his long-term injury. If he is not reckoned to be ready for international duty, then Dunbar would be at 12 with Sean Lamont at 13. Lamont may be approaching the veteran stage, but he is playing at least as well as ever. With Stuart Hogg at full-back and a settled half-back partnership of Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw, the only question is surely which of the three wings to omit. Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour score more tries than Sean Maitland, but Maitland is by some way the best all-round rugby player of the three. Given that the likely French stand-off, Camille Lopez, is a master of the diagonal kick to his wing, it would be risky to prefer Visser to Maitland. I am assuming that Seymour’s autumn form makes his selection sure.
It looks like a more or less settled team and a pretty good one. However, we shouldn’t look for too much. Everyone else looks pretty good too, and starting the championship in Paris, where we haven’t won since that spring afternoon in 1999 when we scored five tries in the first half, is a formidable task.
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