How do you beat Exeter Chiefs? First rule: remember that they are masters of the craft of scoring the most boring sort of tries: by a maul or repeated forward drives following a five-metre lineout on their own throw. They do this better and more frequently than any other club in the northern hemisphere.
So you mustn’t concede penalties in a position from which they can kick deep into your 22. Forget this and they will score tries. Of course, they can score tries from elsewhere too. Nevertheless, the second rule is that you must play most of the game in their half, while also being ready to attack from deep when an opportunity arises.
The pessimist may quite reasonably judge that Glasgow’s chance of qualifying for the Champions Cup quarter-final has already gone. They almost certainly need two five-point victories, first against Exeter at Scotstoun today, then against Sale Sharks away next weekend. Losing at home to La Rochelle did for them. It was a horrible evening of wind and rain, and playing with the gale behind them they first scored an early try, and then permitted their opponents not only to control possession for the second quarter of the game, but also to score two tries themselves before half-time.
Very few teams get a four-try bonus point against Exeter. Saracens have done so three or four times. Glasgow themselves managed it once, in a match in which they scored brilliant tries from their own 22. But Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell were sparkling that day. Hogg is now in Exeter, Russell in Paris, and nobody pretends that Glasgow are as good now as they were that day in 2016. Beating Exeter today would be a fine achievement, winning with a bonus point a remarkable one.
Edinburgh are in a much happier position. They can even afford to lose in Bordeaux today without impairing their chance of reaching the knockout stage since they play Agen at home next week, and it would be a shock if they don’t win that game quite comfortably.
Meanwhile, Scott Wight, head coach of the Scotland Club XV, has announced a 35-man training squad for the two internationals against Ireland to be played home and away on 31 January at Netherdale and 7 February at Donnybrook in Dublin. The Club internationals may be considered the peak of the truly amateur game. Players from the new semi-pro Super 6 clubs are ineligible. I suppose this may mean that the Scotland club side is a bit weaker than it has been in previous years, but, inasmuch as the SRU’s separation of the amateur game from the professional one is to be welcomed, one can’t reasonably complain if this turns out to be the case.
All ten clubs in the Tennent’s Premiership are represented. Not surprisingly the league leaders, Marr, provide nine players and there are eight from Currie Chieftains who are second, nine points behind the leaders. There are four from Selkirk, three each from Hawick and Glasgow Hawks, two each from Jed-Forest, Edinburgh Accies and Aberdeen Grammar, while Musselburgh and GHA each provide one.
The selection looks therefore a pretty fair representation of the strength of the top level of the amateur game in different parts of the country. It also, sadly, confirms the comparative decline of the Borders, something already evident in the somewhat meagre number in the fully professional game of players originating from what, 40 or 50 years ago, was recognised as the heartland of Scottish rugby. Border League clubs provided 11 of the XV which clinched the 1984 Grand Slam against France: Peter Dods, Keith Robertson, Roger Baird, John Rutherford, Roy Laidlaw, Jim Aitken, Colin Deans, Alan Tomes, Alastair Campbell, David Leslie and Iain Paxton – three from Gala, three from Hawick, two from Selkirk, and one each from Melrose, Kelso and Jed-Forest. Now we have a total of nine players from only three Borders clubs in this 35-man squad. Some attribute the decline – or comparative decline – of Borders rugby to the weakening of schools rugby, but no doubt it was unreasonable to suppose that a region with a population of around 100,000 could continue to carry Scottish rugby on its shoulders like Atlas bearing the weight of the world in Greek mythology.
Perhaps the future role of rugby in the Borders may be as the stronghold of the truly amateur game. There might be a better chance of this happening if club rugby was even half as well supported as it used to be, even though the days when Bill McLaren could recall crowds of 4,000 at Mansfield Park are unlikely to return. Still, you never know. We are only in the first year of complete separation of the professional and amateur games, and certainly the league from which Wight has drawn his Club International squad has been producing much skilful and entertaining rugby and there are some very talented players among the 35 he has selected.