Allan Massie: Edinburgh have skilful centres and a dangerous back three but Ulster have the edge at half-back

Home side’s all-international pack should give them the advantage up front

Darcy Graham is part of a dangerous Edinburgh back three alongside Blair Kinghorn and Duhan van der Merwe.  Picture: Mark Scates/SNS
Darcy Graham is part of a dangerous Edinburgh back three alongside Blair Kinghorn and Duhan van der Merwe. Picture: Mark Scates/SNS

There was good reason for thinking that the last months of the 2019-20 rugby season should simply have been written off. A normal season is already congested – domestic leagues, European Cups, autumn internationals and the Six Nations jostling against each other and making heavy demands on players. Conversely there was also good reason for playing the season stalled by the coronavirus to its conclusion, not least cogent among the arguments for this being contracts with television companies and sponsors. Well, we know which argument prevailed, and so here we are trying to cram a litre of liquor into a 70cl bottle. Given the uncertainties the virus still poses, there may be a good deal of spillage.

Be that as it may, here we have Edinburgh meeting Ulster at Murrayfield tonight in what, for both clubs, is either their penultimate or last match in the 2019-20 Pro14 season. Both are clubs which have disappointed their supporters as often as not. Edinburgh have played second fiddle to Glasgow, Ulster to Leinster. Both have been revived over the last couple of years by a new coach, Richard Cockerill in Edinburgh, Dan McFarland in Belfast. To add more spice – if any was needed – McFarland was previously Gregor Townsend’s assistant both at Glasgow and with Scotland, while Ulster’s CEO, the 45-times capped former Scotland captain Jonny Petrie, was formerly managing director of Edinburgh Rugby.

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In normal times Edinburgh might be expected to have the advantage of home support, but the times are of course abnormal. In any case, one would have expected a sizeable contingent of Ulster folk to have come over. Indeed, I recall a match in the early years of pro rugby – I think the semi-final of the short-lived Celtic Cup – at which the Ulster support seemed more numerous and were certainly more vocal than the home crowd.

Jacob Stockdale, now playing at 15 for Ulster, is a prolific try-scorer for club and country. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Neither team has been convincing since rugby resumed. Edinburgh won the first match against Glasgow and lost the second, when, admittedly, they fielded less than a full strength XV. Ulster have lost to both Connacht and Leinster, nothing of course surprising about the second defeat.

On paper Edinburgh might seem to have the advantage up front. They field an all-international pack, seven Scotland men and the outstanding Fijian Bill Mata. They also have Jamie Ritchie on the bench; he was Scotland’s outstanding player in the Six Nations but has only just recovered from injury. But, if Ulster might not seem quite to match this line-up, two things should be said. First, Ulster packs are always powerful and fiercely competitive. Second, Irish rugby has been stronger than ours for a long time now, getting in to the national side correspondingly harder.

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Behind the scrum things look pretty even though Ulster may have the advantage at half-back. Certainly in the season now finishing, John Cooney was the outstanding scrum-half in the Guinness Pro14, a livewire in attack, a canny general and an excellent goal-kicker. The very powerful Stuart McCloskey in the centre has done great damage to Scottish teams in the past, and Jacob Stockdale, now playing at 15, is a prolific try-scorer at both club and international level.

Yet in theory Edinburgh can match most of this with skilful centres in Chris Dean and Mark Bennett and as dangerous a back three of Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe as any club in the league. I say “in theory” or “only in theory” because while Richard Cockerill has done wonders at Edinburgh, his team still too often plays a limited and conservative game. Admittedly the second Glasgow match was overall a very poor one, a drab affair, but Edinburgh’s reluctance to move the ball wide and make more use of Graham and van der Merwe was hard to understand. There are of course days when safety-first rugby makes sense and one accepts that it is desirable and often necessary to establish dominance up-front first. Nevertheless, when you have wingers with an eye for the try-line like these two, you would think you wanted to take every opportunity to get the ball to them. Get the cavalry into the battle.

Finally, since we all look for a good and entertaining match as well as for victory, it’s to be hoped that the players have now, after a couple of games, learned to adapt to the revised interpretation of what is permissible and what forbidden at the breakdown, and that we are spared the constant stream of penalties awarded in most matches since the resumption. If by some happy chance the match is played in benign weather (though this may be too much to hope for) we might see some fine rugby, even as good as when Glasgow ran in seven tries against Ulster in the semi-final in May 2019 – which seems a very long time ago.

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