Allan Massie: Form favours Glasgow but Edinburgh have forward power

Brilliant Fijian No 8 Viliame Mata could be key for Edinburgh. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS/SRU
Brilliant Fijian No 8 Viliame Mata could be key for Edinburgh. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS/SRU
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Edinburgh have beaten Glasgow twice, so that they have already retained the 1872 Cup and they are the only Pro14 team to have won at Scotstoun this season. This might reasonably make them favourites today, even away from home. On the other hand Glasgow have recovered from their humiliating loss to Saracens in the Heineken quarter-final more convincingly than Edinburgh since they let victory slip in their quarter-final against Munster at Murrayfield.

Edinburgh have had a good season nevertheless, a much better one than many expected. All the same the league record would seem to favour Glasgow. They have won 15 and lost five of Pro 14 matches; Edinburgh have won ten and lost ten. There’s another difference which may account for what looks like Edinburgh’s last weeks of the season slump. Richard 
Cockerill has been much more consistent in team selection than Dave Rennie. No doubt he has felt this necessary, and indeed one has thought that this consistency
has contributed to Edinburgh’s improvement and especially to their fine cup run. However, it may be telling at the tail-end of the season: one has the impression that man for man the Edinburgh team today will have played a good many more hours of club rugby than the Glasgow one.

Nevertheless, if you hold by the adage that forwards win matches, backs determine the margin of victory, then you may well make Edinburgh favourites this evening. They have at least five members of what has been Gregor Townsend’s first-choice Scotland scrum with the brilliant Fijian Bill Mata also there at No 8.

It is indeed on account of their superiority up-front that Edinburgh have had the mastery of Glasgow for a couple of years now. On the face of it, there’s no evident reason why things should be different today. That said, both teams have defences that are not exactly water-tight.

News of both clubs’ house-clearing means that there is already an end-of-season feel to the match, even though the Pro14 title won’t be decided for another month. Seven are leaving Edinburgh. The most notable departure is of course Ross Ford’s. He has played almost 200 times for the club and of course more than a hundred for Scotland. It’s an astonishing record, and though, like most players, he has never been without his critics, nobody plays so much top-level rugby without being extraordinarily good.

In season 2017-18 Edinburgh had three scrum-halves competing for a place. Now all have gone. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne went a year ago and is now playing for Harlequins. Nathan Fowles is off to Ealing in the English Championship, Sean Kennedy is in search of a club. Both have been little used this season, Cockerill opting for the canny good sense and superior game-management of Henry Pyrgos who came over from Glasgow last summer; indeed Pyrgos will be playing his 24th match of the season today, almost all as a starter.
It may be that Fowles and Kennedy feel a bit hard done-by, not unreasonably.

We already knew that 
Stuart Hogg was leaving Glasgow for Exeter, a departure which, following Finn Russell’s a year ago, indicates that Scottish professional rugby is still somewhat fragile, being unable to keep its real stars at home. Of course, there’s another side to the coin. Finn has flourished in Paris and is, one thinks, an even better
player now than when he left Glasgow 12 months ago. The change has done him good, and change may have the same effect on Hogg. Moreover, Finn’s departure from Scotstoun has given Adam Hastings the chance to flourish – a chance eagerly accepted.

Alex Dunbar is also leaving Glasgow, though whether of his own volition or not is unclear. He has played more than a hundred times for the club and has 31 Scottish caps, but his last two seasons have been horribly disrupted by injury. I don’t think he has managed to put in a full 80 minutes in two consecutive games. So it’s not surprising that he has suffered loss of form and, perhaps, of confidence.

It’s only a couple of years since he was our best all-round centre, a fast and powerful runner, tremendous tackler and wonderfully adept at securing turnovers after making a tackle. Indeed he was equivalent to a third flanker, as good at the breakdown as John Barclay or Hamish Watson. He has been on loan at Newcastle for some time now, but injuries have prevented him from contributing to Dean Richards’ side’s struggle to avoid relegation. Perhaps a summer with no immediate commitments will give Dunbar the chance to regain full fitness. He is 
still only 28 – with several seasons of good rugby still possible – if his battered body permits.

There had been word that Glasgow might have both their co-captains, Callum Gibbins and Ryan Wilson back today, but Gibbins is still sidelined, while Wilson has got no closer to action than the bench. So Edinburgh’s back-row of Barclay, Mata and Watson may have the advantage over Glasgow’s: Rob Harley, young Matt 
Fagerson and Tom Gordon who is playing only his fourth match for the club.