This is crunch weekend for Glasgow and Edinburgh. Glasgow play Cardiff Blues at Scotstoun, Edinburgh Toulon away. Victory for either club would almost certainly secure a place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, though Glasgow may need a bonus point to be sure. On the face of it, Glasgow have the easier task. They are at home and Cardiff Blues have no chance of proceeding further in the Cup. Edinburgh’s assignment this weekend is more demanding, even though Toulon are having their worst season for years and, like Cardiff, can’t qualify for the knock-out stages.
Yet first appearances are so often deceptive. Glasgow must win this weekend because their last pool match is away to Saracens at Allianz Park and victory there seems improbable. Even collecting a losing bonus point (which they might need if they don’t score four tries in a win over Cardiff) would be an achievement. Edinburgh on the other hand will get a second chance, at home to Montpellier, even if they lose in Toulon, and, given their home form , would be favourites to win that one.
Glasgow on the other hand are in a mid-season slump, only temporarily, one hopes. They have lost their last three matches and, even before doing so, were some way short of their best in their last European game, against Lyon at home. Admittedly the weather that day was atrocious, but Lyon, though defeated, coped with it better than Glasgow. So tomorrow’s match is surely the most important of Glasgow’s season to date. Kenny Murray, their assistant coach, has admitted that confidence has taken a knock and it would be strange if it hadn’t.
As for Edinburgh, Toulon may not be the power they were, and, last week, in the first half at least, were taken apart by a Finn Russell-inspired Racing92, for whom Leone Nakarawa was also in fine fettle. Nevertheless, Toulon remain formidable before their demanding home crowd and can field a team of internationalists. Indeed, if you were making up a composite team I guess that Edinburgh might supply only four or five of the XV.
All the same, one reason for Edinburgh’s fine run of form may be that Richard Cockerill seems to have no doubt as to his first XV. It would, I suppose, be different, if John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, Matt Scott and Mark Bennett were all fit and available but, as things are, most of us could have named the XV who would start against Toulon tomorrow without looking at the newspaper. One recognises that rotation is necessary, partly to keep fringe players happy, partly so that the favoured starters are not over-played but get the occasional week off. Seven of Cockerill’s stars were indeed rested for the Southern Kings match last weekend. Yet I wonder how much Edinburgh’s fine run of form is the result of Cockerill’s apparent preference for having a settled team, a recognised first XV.
In contrast one never knows quite what sort of Glasgow line-up one is likely to see; it’s a guessing game each week. Admittedly, while Cockerill’s choice has been constrained because the absent four listed above have all been suffering from long-term injuries, and because he has fewer internationalists in his squad, Dave Rennie has a large clutch of Scottish internationalists to pick from, especially in the back division, while some of the absent injured have been unavailable for only a couple of weeks rather than several months. Yet one has wondered if inconsistency in selection has to some extent contributed to inconsistency on the pitch.
The announcement this week of Italian and French training squads reminds one that the Six Nations will follow hard on the heels of these European Cup matches. National coaches will be praying that key players escape injury, even while recognising that injuries happen on the training field too. As far as we are concerned it will be fingers crossed and then crossed again, for Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw especially. Both have been in terrific form for their French clubs. Interestingly, Laidlaw has generally started matches for Clermont-Auvergne, with Morgan Parra coming on as a replacement around the 50 or 60-minute mark.
This shows how highly Laidlaw is regarded in the Auvergne, for Parra has also been in good form and is included in Jacques Brunel’s 31-man squad.
Missing Brunel’s first Six Nations on account of injury, Parra was out of favour with Brunel’s predecessor, Guy Noves. I found this hard to understand, for he has always been a terrific player and a general in the best tradition of French scrum-halves. That said, from what I’ve seen, the outstanding 9 in France this season has been the young Antoine Dupont at Toulouse.
Since the third scrum-half in the squad is Baptiste Serin and there is no place for Marcel Machenaud, one can see that Brunel, like Gregor Townsend, is spoiled for choice at the base of the scrum. Eddie Jones might wish to have so many options in that position.