Allan Massie: Why URC opening weekend was encouraging for both Edinburgh and Glasgow

An interesting first round of the URC gave reason for optimism here.

Edinburgh's Darcy Graham (centre) celebrates his second try in the win over Scarlets. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)
Edinburgh's Darcy Graham (centre) celebrates his second try in the win over Scarlets. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

Edinburgh won very well at their new stadium against good Welsh opposition and did so in refreshing style, with four good tries, all scored, remarkably these days, by backs.

Whether this is early evidence of a change in outlook inspired by Mike Blair or merely one of these happy chances remains to be seen. Let us hope it’s the former.

Edinburgh have, of course, a skilled and powerful pack, well schooled in Richard Cockerill’s Leicester tradition; nevertheless, not one that will bully or subdue the likes of Leinster or Munster. So if Edinburgh are to challenge and defeat the best teams in the league, they surely need to be playing 15-man rugby.

Edinburgh's Hamish Watson (L) and Glasgow's Fraser Brown pictured during the United Rugby Championship's Scottish Launch at the Kelpies. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Their backs were splendidly alert last week with Darcy Graham in his most sprightly and elusive form and Mark Bennett looking as if he may be returning to the form that made him a Scotland star before he suffered a succession of injuries. At scrum-half the new recruit Ben Vellacott reminded one of how good he looked playing age-group rugby for Scotland a few years ago, before he disappeared from view in the fog of the English Premiership.

It’s not so long since a trip to Treviso would have held few fears even for an Edinburgh side perhaps less talented than this one. But times have changed. Italian rugby is improving fast, and Benetton are on an unprecedented winning run. They beat the Stormers last week, and though the South African provinces are not yet at full strength, being without their internationals involved in the Rugby Championship in Australia, this was still a notable win for Benetton. All the South African teams will in time be strengthened by returning Springboks, though one can only guess how much, since South Africa, like Scotland , have so many of their Test squad playing their club rugby in England or France.

Meanwhile, when Glasgow meet the Cell C Sharks at Scotstoun this afternoon they will find a familiar and much respected adversary in Ruan Pienaar who, over several seasons at Ulster, outgeneralled and tormented both Scottish teams. His international days may be some way behind him but he still reads the game as well as any scrum-half playing; kicks goals too, of course.

Sharks lost to Munster in Limerick last week, and that’s no great surprise. Not many invaders of Thomond Park finish in the winner’s enclosure. Discipline let the Sharks down. Their assistant coach, John McFarland, remarked that Munster made twelve entries to the Sharks 22, all twelve by way of penalties. Of course such statistics can be misleading, penalties sometimes being conceded to prevent the opposition winning quick ball at the breakdown, ball that might enable them to breach the defence and camp in the 22, even score a try.

Glasgow themselves lost in Belfast last week, but it was a close match and one which they came very near to winning in the last ten minutes. Like Edinburgh they played with a good deal of enterprise. Richie Gray and Scott Cummings dominated the line-out. It was good to see George Horne fully fit again and full as ever of running and mischief, while the young fly half Ross Thompson who came on when Duncan Weir’s return to Scotstoun was cut short by a head injury, confirmed the good impression he made last season. Glasgow have pace in the back three. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a much better season than last year’s strange, disrupted and disappointing one.

Predictions after a first round of matches are fairly ridiculous. Nevertheless there is at least one that may be sensibly made. Leinster start the season as favourites and remain the team to beat. There seems no end to the stream of talented players emerging from their Academy. They have ruled the roost as completely as Celtic governed Scottish football in their nine years in a row supremacy. Still even Celtic fans now accept that all good things come to an end – even if only temporarily. Many rugby fans must now hope that this will be a season in which Leinster’s learn that same painful lesson. Perhaps.

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