Mid-November, and excitement about the European Cups should be taking a grip. Clubs will usually have had half a dozen or more league matches to get their season properly underway. It’s not quite like that this first European weekend. The shadow of the World Cup lies over the tournaments.
Clubs, deprived of World Cup players who need time to recuperate and recharge their batteries, have perforce been fielding makeshift XVs in league matches. Some who took part in the World Cup haven’t yet appeared for their club since they returned from Japan. With a long season before them, this is natural and proper, but it does mean that the European Cup matches these first two weekends may lack something of the usual glamour. A note on the SRU’s website on Thursday telling us a limited number of tickets were still available for Glasgow’s opener against Sale Sharks at Scotstoun this afternoon rather makes the point.
Then there is the question hanging over the reigning champions, Saracens. Faced with the prospect of a heavy points deduction in the English Premiership if their appeal against punishment for their alleged breaching of the League’s salary cap, there has been talk of giving priority to their League struggle and so fielding less than full-strength sides in the Champions Cup. They may not do so, but even the suggestion that they might takes some of the gilt off the cup.
It may understandably provoke a wry smile in Glasgow who were in the same pool as Saracens last season and have twice lost to them in the knockout stages, and the thought that, if Saracens are indeed guilty of the misdemeanour alleged, it is a pity they were not pulled up a year ago. As it is, Glasgow are in the same pool as Saracens’ English rivals Exeter Chiefs, now reinforced by Stuart Hogg who will surely get a rousing cheer when he runs out at Scotstoun and perhaps a bit of a clattering from some erstwhile team-mates on the field.
Sale Sharks, their opponents today, are not quite as formidable as Exeter, especially if the mighty atom, South Africa’s Faf De Klerk, has not yet recovered from his exertions in the World Cup where he might well have been judged the Player of the Tournament.
Still they are a tough and gritty team, with a sprinkling of powerful South Africans, and come to Scotstoun on the back of a good 28-18 win against Wasps last weekend, a match in which the Scotland wing Byron McGuigan showed just why Gregor Townsend values him highly.
There was also the pleasure of watching that talented young centre, Cameron Redpath, son of the former Scotland captain, Bryan, aka Basil, who won 60 caps, 1993-2003, in the face of fierce competition from Gary Armstrong and Andy Nicol. Sadly, young Cameron seems to have opted for England, not Scotland, though I don’t think it’s too late for him to change his mind.
It’s axiomatic that you must win your home pool matches to have a chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals in the spring, and Glasgow, though still missing one or two from the World Cup party, should be able to see off Sale if they get at least parity up front and their young half-backs, Adam Hastings and George Horne, are in their best sprightly mood. A repeat of their performance for Scotland against Russia would put Scotstoun in a happy mood.
Meanwhile, it’s good to see that Ali Price has recovered from the foot injury that kept him out of the World Cup. Glasgow need both their livewire Scottish scrum-halves fit and in form.
Edinburgh will have opened their Challenge Cup campaign away to Agen on Friday evening by the time this column appears. Richard Cockerill named what looks something less than his first-choice XV, and not only on account of injuries which have deprived him of Hamish Watson, Darcy Graham and Ben Toolis. If this suggests a certain lack of commitment to the lesser cup, Agen, near the bottom of the Top 14, may themselves be more concerned with avoiding relegation from that league than with the cup.
All the same, winning in France is never easy and, if Edinburgh come away with four points, they will be well set up to make progress in the cup, a competition indeed in which they have met with a fair bit of success, very welcome success even if Cockerill would rather have them in the main event, the Champions Cup. To get there, however, requires them to raise their game and achieve an unaccustomed consistency in the Pro14.
As things stand, both our pro teams are much like the national one: capable of brilliant days but, sadly, of relapsing into mediocrity.