It was hard to decide which played worse last week – Glasgow against the Scarlets or Edinburgh against Ulster. Glasgow at least had the excuse (which I don’t suppose they advanced) that they were away to a team in rampant form. Dave Rennie’s admission that “we were a bit flat” was an understatement designed for public consumption. I would think he spoke a good deal more roughly in the dressing-room. They certainly were flat, but they also made too many mistakes. As for Edinburgh, their defensive alignment was ragged in the first half against Ulster, whose tries, though well-taken, were all on the soft side.
Glasgow will have played Connacht at Scotstoun before you read this and should have got the four points they need to secure a home semi-final. Connacht are not the team they were when they won the title two years ago but they’re never easy to beat. Glasgow may be spared the need to win if the Cheetahs beat Munster in Bloemfontein. But they need that home semi. On recent form, few would fancy them in an away one.
Edinburgh, likewise, need to beat the Scarlets at Murrayfield this afternoon. “We need to win, it’s as simple as that,” says Richard Cockerill. A third defeat in a row would take the gloss off their much improved season and might allow Ulster to nudge them out of a place in next season’s European Champions Cup. That said, they could scarcely have tougher opposition than they have today. Their best hope may be that Scarlets will have half an eye on their Champions Cup semi-final in Dublin next weekend. But I guess this is unlikely. On the other hand, Edinburgh may have reason to believe that the Scarlets won’t reap such a rich crop of scrum penalties as they gained against Glasgow last week. There were five, I think, costing Glasgow points, territory, possession and momentum.
Elsewhere, it’s the Melrose Sevens today. Sadly, the Borders Sevens circuit has never quite recovered from the damage done to it by the coming of professionalism more than 20 years ago, despite the best efforts of everyone through some tinkering with structures and the introduction of the King of the Sevens League. Nevertheless, the Melrose Sevens continues to be a great and attractive tournament. It is to the credit of the club and successive committees that it does so, retaining its popularity against the odds. It is still covered by BBC television, which is itself remarkable, considering how little commitment the BBC has to rugby anywhere now. That lack of commitment was again made evident by the corporation’s failure to make any meaningful effort to retain rights for coverage of some Guinness Pro14 matches for its Gaelic-language channel, Alba. One doesn’t know just how these things are decided, what degree of horse-trading takes place, but one can’t avoid thinking that the SRU might have done a better job for their clubs’ supporters by securing some coverage by a terrestrial channel, rather than surrendering pretty well everything to an Irish subscription one. The Welsh, as I understand it, have secured some games for S4C, the Welsh-language channel.
Meanwhile, it’s also sevens day in the Commonwealth Games. Scotland have been perhaps a bit unlucky to find themselves in the same pool as South Africa, probably favourites for the gold medal. The South African squad are all likely to be sevens specialists, whereas Scotland’s coach John Dalziel has spread his net a bit more widely, pulling in a few players who, like Ruaridh Jackson, haven’t played much sevens or, like Lee Jones, haven’t done so recently. This will, however, be Lee’s third Commonwealth Games, while he also missed out narrowly – and perhaps unluckily – on selection for the Great Britain & Northern Ireland Rio Olympics squad. That squad, like Scotland’s in Australia, was a mixture of sevens specialists and stars of the 15-a-side game like Mark Bennett and the Scarlets’ James Davies.
So, contrary to some expectations, sevens and the 15-a-side game haven’t quite parted company, just as Test cricket and international T20 haven’t – yet, at any rate. The interesting question is whether countries with little history of international 15s at a high level, but which have taken successfully to the shorter form of the game – Kenya being a good example – will actually go on to develop 15-a-side rugby or will be content to play on the IRB’s increasingly popular international sevens circuit. Scotland have been doing quite well on that for the past few seasons and there is always talk of sevens having a role in developing players for the 15-a-side game.
In truth, there hasn’t been any great evidence of this being the case, some of the most successful Scottish sevens players, Mark Robertson, left, and Colin Gregor (both now retired) being ones who never quite made it to the top in 15-a-side rugby.
Still, it’s good that we haven’t abandoned sevens – though Ireland, ranked No 2 in the world, turned its back on the short game years ago.