Allan Massie: Glasgow and Edinburgh would have wanted nicer draws - but both have a chance
There are never easy matches in the European Champions Cup, and the same is more or less true of the lesser Challenge Cup, even if, just occasionally, some games turn out to be less demanding than expected.
This surely isn’t the case for Glasgow and Edinburgh this year. Their immediate opposition in the first stage of this season’s cups in what is, one hopes, only a temporary truncated form look daunting. The initial pool stage, cut from six matches to four, offers a prospect of rather sudden death. Admittedly the usual format – pools of six clubs playing each other home and away – meant that in the last round there were usually some matches in which one team no longer had any vital interest in the tournament, but it still seems fairer than this year’s Covid-affected one.
Glasgow could certainly have wished for a more sympathetic draw than finding themselves against La Rochelle and Exeter Chiefs home and away. Both are familiar foes, and indeed Glasgow beat La Rochelle away three years ago. Unfortunately they had already let the first match at Scotstoun slip out of their hands. La Rochelle were last year’s finalists, losing to Toulouse. Meanwhile Edinburgh have the alluring prospect of Saracens at Allianz Park.
There were eight Scots on the Lions tour this summer. Only three now play their club rugby in Scotland: Ali Price and Zander Fagerson with Glasgow, Hamish Watson with Edinburgh. Since the SRU, unlike the Irish Union, has proved unable to keep top players at home here in Scotland, it has been necessary to recruit from overseas – South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, the Pacific Islands – whether the incomers have a Scottish qualification or not. In contrast Tadgh Furlong and Garry Ringrose, players that any French or English club would love to attract, have each just signed new three-year contracts with the IRFU.
Still there’s no point wailing about this. We should recognise that even the best French and English clubs regularly field players ineligible to play for France or England. Even Leinster, all but invincible in what is now the United Rugby Championship, are happy to field the New Zealanders James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park, both of whom are now in Andy Farrell’s Ireland team, having qualified by residence. One might add that Glasgow would have been unlikely to have won the old Pro12 title in 2015 without the outstanding Fijian Leone Nakarawa. What matters is the quality of the incomers, and too often, here in Scotland, some have been no better than average. For every Nakarawa, Bill Mata, Tim Visser and Willem Nel, there have been two or three who added little to their Scottish clubs.
Happily, a good many of this summer’s recruits to both Edinburgh and Glasgow have already made a good impression, none more so than the Australian No 8 or flanker Jack Dempsey. Dempsey has won 14 caps for the Wallabies, but has been out of favour since the 2019 World Cup. With a Scottish grandfather he will be eligible to play for Scotland under the revised qualification law if not recalled soon by Australia. It would be no surprise if Gregor Townsend is praying that Australia’s coach Dave Rennie continues to show no interest in Dempsey. He looks just like the powerful carrying back-rower we would like to have.
As for this weekend’s matches Glasgow seem able to field what is very close to their strongest team, Edinburgh are without Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn, Jamie Ritchie and Bill Mata – not something you want when coming up against Saracens.
There are 12 Scottish caps plus Dempsey in Glasgow’s starting XV, and one of the uncapped players, young Rory Darge, would surely have played in one of the autumn internationals if fit. La Rochelle have a huge pack, but Glasgow’s looks capable of matching them. Richie Gray, after his first injury-free run of games for years, has been in formidable form, both in the line-out, where he has taken the opposition throw more often than anyone else in the URC so far, and the loose. If this first match was at Scotstoun Glasgow might just deserve to start as favourites. Away in La Rochelle is a different matter, and, sadly, I expect , La Rochelle’s bench may be stronger and more influential than Glasgow’s. Still it could be quite a game, also, weather permitting, a sparkling one, for Glasgow must surely contrive to move their opponents around the field and ask questions about the point of attack. Like Edinburgh, they have been conceding too many penalties at the breakdown. Improve there, and they definitely have a chance.