BOTH the Champions Cup semi-finals were close, but while Saracens never really looked like beating Clermont Auvergne, Leinster came mightily and heroically close to knocking the holders Toulon out. One felt for young Ian Madigan. His goal-kicking had enabled Leinster to beat Bath and kept them level-pegging with Toulon, but then he risked a long pass to the wing, forgetting perhaps that Bryan Habana was lurking in the vicinity.
Habana has been the most alert poacher in the international game, the master of the interception. I suppose that in the northern hemisphere now England’s Clive Ashton and our Tommy Seymour may run him close, but Habana has been picking off this sort of try for years now, since Ian Madigan was a schoolboy indeed. The old adage “look before you leap” might usefully be amended to read “look for Habana before you throw out a daring pass”.
So we are back to the Guinness Pro12 this week, with everything for both Scottish clubs to play for. Edinburgh had a splendid win last week to take them into the Challenge Cup final, but they are going to be hard pushed to make the sixth place in the league which would admit them to the Champions Cup next season. Scarlets look to have an easier run-in with matches against the Dragons, Cardiff Blues and Treviso, while Edinburgh’s final game is against Leinster. Of course, it’s quite likely that Leinster may, remarkably, have nothing but pride to play for by then, and will indeed find themselves in that position if they don’t beat Ulster in Belfast this weekend.
Glasgow still sit top of the table, but they have a hard finish: Connacht away, Ospreys away and Ulster at home. Injuries have cut a swathe through the squad. Five international three-quarters are out for the season: Sean Maitland, Sean Lamont, Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett, and DTH van der Merwe. They surely can’t afford more. Duncan Weir is happily fit again to share stand-off duties with Finn Russell, but the key man over the next weeks may well be Peter Horne, who has been in sparkling form recently. I suppose if anything happened to him Russell would have to be moved to 12, playing outside Weir. Be that as it may, their back division is stretched to what must be near the limit.
Things look better up front. Gregor Townsend has been able to give young Jonny Gray a couple of weeks’ rest which was surely necessary after his heroic exertions in the first half of the club season and then throughout the Six Nations.
With Josh Strauss fit again, Glasgow have the go-forward they need, and a back-row of Strauss, Rob Harley and Chris Fusaro is as good as any.
The problem for Glasgow, apart from the number of absentees, is probably mental. They have to shake off the reputation of being the “nearly team”. They have got to the League final, and lost. They played some splendid rugby in the Champions Cup, but a failure to take a bonus point in Toulouse and then just failing to bring off what would have been a terrific win in the final pool game against Bath meant they didn’t qualify for the quarter-final. So the pressure is intense to hold their place at the top of the league, ensuring they get a home semi-final, and then to go on and win the final in Belfast. It’s a very tough assignment.
Edinburgh have played second best to Glasgow – except in the Inter-City 1873 Cup – but they now have a chance of collecting another piece of silverware. They will probably start as underdogs in the Challenge Cup final against Gloucester next Friday on the fairly neutral territory of The Stoop, but they shouldn’t lack for support if London-based Scots turn out to boost the number of Edinburgh loyalists who will make the trip south. The game also offers the fascinating prospect of a head-to-head duel between Greig Laidlaw and young Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, his successor in the Edinburgh team and challenger for the number 9 Scotland jersey. Hidalgo-Clyne has been delighting us with his skill, zest, pace and imagination, as exemplified by the back-of-the hand pass that put Tim Visser in for a try against the Dragons last week, but Laidlaw remains the canniest of operators and has, by all accounts, been pleasing them no end down in Gloucester.
A couple of weeks ago I suggested that those of us who had been critical of the Edinburgh coach, Alan Solomons, should not be eating our words. Even if they don’t win the Challenge Cup and don’t make the top six in the league, Edinburgh now look a pretty good team. Of course, if they should beat Gloucester and if Glasgow end the season as the Guinness Pro12 champions, this season would be by some way the best Scottish one in the professional era. The clubs’ achievement would go some way to compensating for a very disappointing Six Nations, and might point to a brighter future for Scottish Rugby. This is why the next few weeks are so important.