It has been a long season (but they all are nowadays), and it’s not over yet.
Glasgow know that they have at least the semi-final of the Guinness Pro14 to look forward to. Edinburgh hope that they too may proceed to the knock-out stages, themselves involving one more round than before. Whether they do so may depend as much on Ulster’s fortunes against Munster in Limerick as on their own efforts. That game kicks off two hours before the final of the 1872 Cup at Murrayfield. So Edinburgh may take the field smiling if Ulster have failed to get a bonus-point win. But if they have got a five-pointer, then Edinburgh will still need a point this evening to go forward. A defeat by seven points or less or four tries in a high-scoring match would do the trick.
Meanwhile there’s the cup to be won. This season’s best-of-three arrangement is certainly preferable to the previous one, decided by the aggregate score in two matches if each team had won one. Edinburgh have home advantage, but for Glasgow going to Murrayfield is not like going to Dublin or Munster. Edinburgh may be thought to have the edge on recent form even though their big win against the Scarlets has to be put in the context of the Welsh club’s decision to field a very much less than full-strength side in view of their Champions Cup semi-final the following week. Still Edinburgh scored eight tries that afternoon, while Glasgow were severely mauled by Ulster in Belfast. Indeed, their second-half performance then was as bad as anything one has seen from a Glasgow side in a long time.
Both sides today are at something like full-strength, if – that is – anyone anywhere knows just what either club’s best starting XV is. Though Glasgow have been the more successful of the two for some years now, Edinburgh’s forwards have often had the better of it in these inter-city clashes. There is also a feeling that Edinburgh are an improving club on the way up while Glasgow seem to be on a plateau. This is partly because some of their stars behind the scrum – Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell and Ali Price – have not, recently, been at their best. Seymour and Russell both start today, but Price has given way to young George Horne while Henry Pyrgos, regarded as the best game manager of Glasgow’s three scrum-halves, is on the bench.
Richard Cockerill has been playing some mind-games, quite mild ones, suggesting that Edinburgh’s rise is making Glasgow “a bit twitchy”. This may be just what is needed to get Glasgow to bestir themselves. That said, it’s care in execution that has been missing too often recently. There were far too many handling errors against Ulster, partly perhaps because their overall game lacked fluency, and players were passing or offloading when under pressure. The consequence was to put the recipient under even more pressure. One likes to see an ambitious game, and on a good day Glasgow play that sort of rugby as well as anyone. But last week Leinster didn’t make a single offload (as distinct from a pass) in the first half of the semi-final against the Scarlets – and won by a handsome margin.
Though both sides have influential players not qualified for Scotland, Callum Gibbins in Glasgow’s back-row and Bill Mata in Edinburgh’s, and a try-scoring van der Merwe apiece, much interest as ever centres on young Scots who haven’t yet had a taste of international rugby, or only a brief experience of it, like Blair Kinghorn, George Horne, Magnus Bradbury and Matt Fagerson. All four have been very impressive this season. Kinghorn may still do daft things sometimes and the younger Horne may be too ready to attempt things on his own – taking tap penalties and running into contact rather than space, for instance – but they are exciting runners blessed with self-confidence and a sense of adventure. Bradbury had a terrific game against the Scarlets and looks to be developing into the player he promised to be when capped in the autumn internationals in 2016, while the younger Fagerson seems to have all the skills and a good head on him too. The fact that Dave Rennie has been happy to play him in all three positions in the back row is evidence of his precocious maturity. He will learn a lot more from playing alongside Gibbins and Glasgow’s captain Ryan Wilson.
There’s a big clear-out at Edinburgh this summer, but of the departing players only Sam Hidalgo-Clyne starts today. He had a brilliant game against the Scarlets, making one wonder again why Edinburgh have let him go.
As for this evening, let’s hope it stays dry and there aren’t too many penalties. It would be nice to think it will be a match that shows Scottish rugby at its best – hard, skilful and adventurous.