Glasgow’s first-half performance against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth was as bad as it could be. One hopes that’s right and that they can’t play worse.
For much of the time they looked like a scratch side that had been assembled with no time for introductions, let alone practice. There was mishandling galore, knock-ons and passes or off-loads to vacant space. They were slow at the breakdown and then there were gaps in what should have been the defensive line. So tackles were missed. Even when they got a penalty that should have put them in a good attacking position, Peter Horne failed to find touch. Only in the set scrum did Glasgow have the upper hand, this giving some credibility to Ryan Wilson’s claim earlier in the week that Glasgow’s forwards are strong and hard enough.
Things got a bit better after the interval, partly because Ali Price brought some urgency at the base of the scrum, and partly because other Glasgow players remembered that you pass to a team-mate, not just into thin air. Then Callum Gibbins came on, Adam Hastings replaced the off-form Peter Horne and suddenly Glasgow looked as if they might score at any minute. They even briefly got back into the match before – again – making mistakes which gave the Kings another try and taking them out of reach. That Glasgow won the second half 28-10 says something for their team spirit but can hardly be said to wipe out memory of the first-half horror show.
Losing away from home is never exactly a disaster and Southern Kings are evidently a stronger side than they were last season. Nevertheless, Glasgow’s rivals will doubtless take note of this performance and be encouraged by evidence of weaknesses. Eleven changes for this evening’s match against the Dragons at Scotstoun may be seen as a mark of Dave Rennie’s displeasure. Neither of tonight’s wings, Lee Jones, making his first appearance since he was injured on Scotland’s summer tour, and Niko Matawalu, travelled to South Africa. Jonny Gray also returns and Glasgow are rarely at their best when he is missing. At the same time, Glasgow’s injury list is already lengthening ominously.
Meanwhile, one hopes Edinburgh will have seen off Benetton. Last week they too were heavily out-gunned in Dublin. No great disgrace about that, since Leinster are arguably the best club side in Europe, and one had the impression that Richard Cockerill, naming something less than his best XV, had more or less discounted that match.
Even with a month to go, thoughts start turning to the Autumn internationals, even as World Rugby officials are pondering ways to replace so-called “friendly” matches with more meaningful ones. Whether this will come to anything must be doubtful. There are probably too many internationals. But there is always pressure to add more, and good reasons for doing so are always discovered. Sometimes the reasons really are good. There is, for instance, pressure to give more opportunities to what are called Tier 2 countries. Fair enough, but how many Unions will opt to stage a match against Georgia or Tonga rather than one against New Zealand or South Africa?
One thing that could and, indeed, should be done is to give these Tier 2 nations the opportunity to play more than the very occasional home match against a Tier 1 nation. Everybody knows that it is more difficult to win away from home. Yet this is precisely what the Pacific Islanders and European nations like Georgia and Romania are almost always required to try to do. They can hardly hope to emerge from the second Tier if they almost never get the chance to play the any of the Six Nations or Rugby Championship matches at home. We ourselves would have a pretty sorry record if we almost never had a home match against England or France, Ireland or Wales.
Meanwhile, both Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell seem to be getting plenty of game-time in France – plenty, but not, one hopes, too much. In the bits of Clermont-Auvergne’s matches I’ve seen, Laidlaw has been in lively form, moving the ball on quickly and judiciously, while also kicking goals with his customary aplomb. For Racing 92 against Castre last week, Russell set up two lovely tries for Simon Zebo by ghosting through two near-invisible gaps and deftly off-loading the ball. He too is kicking goals and one has the impression that he is enjoying himself. Racing’s game with Stade Francais should be on TV tomorrow afternoon, worth watching if you can tear yourself away from the Ryder Cup singles which, of course, you may, sadly, be all too ready to do.