As oldest of rivals meet, Iain Morrison casts his eye over what, despite being a dead rubber, could be seen as a return of the Scotland trial
You have to question the wisdom of moving the second leg of the 1872 Cup from its traditional slot around Hogmanay to the very end of the season. Doubtless the powers that be had their fingers crossed that Glasgow would be fighting for a home play-off and Edinburgh would be… well, still fighting.
Instead they have a dead rubber on their hands with just the local bragging rights that come with the 1872 Cup, not that either club is going to be doing much bragging. Glasgow miss out on the play-offs for the first time since 2011, while Edinburgh set a new record for consecutive losses in the same league season. The summer can’t come soon enough for some.
However, the final fixture of the season is lent some much-needed meaning by the summer tour and the fact that, for the first time ever, Gregor Townsend, above right, will stamp his mark on the Scotland squad. Next Saturday’s 1872 Cup is a miniature trial and we already know that the new coach is looking for back-three replacements for the two Lions he is losing… there may be more once the injuries kick in.
While there will be calls for all sorts of bolters to be included in the squad “for the experience”, there are all too few hammering down the door that merit it and Townsend will be acutely aware of the need to get off to a winning start. Vern Cotter is the only Scotland coach in the pro-era to earn pass marks with a 53 per cent winning record. The Kiwi has set the bar high and Townsend will be determined to match or even better it.
Tommy Seymour got his first Scotland break when Sean Maitland toured with the Lions in Australia four years ago and now Seymour’s own absence may open the door to someone else. Townsend will probably employ Maitland at full-back, the Kiwi has plenty of experience there and Stuart Hogg is obviously unavailable. That leaves Tim Visser filling his preferred left wing which means opportunity knocks on the opposite flank. There are four candidates for what will probably be three places in the Scotland squad; Glasgow duo Rory Hughes and Lee Jones and the Edinburgh pair of Blair Kinghorn and Damien Hoyland are all in contention.
He has had an ordinary season with too many mistakes but in fairness Kinghorn, pictured below, probably played too much rugby this season. He has a shout to go as the second-choice full-back behind Maitland because the other candidates have precious little experience at 15.
Hughes has made huge strides this year in terms of his overall game and especially his decision making with the ball in hand. He is probably the most physical winger in Scotland, which must be a consideration with that Fiji match in mind.
Lee is an infinitely better player now than when he was capped back in 2012, while Hoyland has had little chance to shine in an Edinburgh team with a toothless midfield.
Key 1872 Battles:
Peter Murchie v Blair Kinghorn.
Rory Hughes v Damien Hoyland.
We thought that Scotland boasted an embarrassment of options at centre but four of the five named in the Six Nations squad are currently injured, Alex Dunbar the only one involved (off the bench) in this weekend’s matches.
Townsend’s big problems are to be found at outside centre where Huw Jones misses the entire Stormers’ season and Mark Bennett is not expected back until 2018.
There is better news for Matt Scott and Duncan Taylor, both of whom are expected to be available. Scott has had plenty of rugby this season, Taylor almost none but Townsend is short of options and may pressgang the Saracen into action in the 13 shirt with Dunbar, Scott or even Peter Horne at second five.
There may be an opportunity for Glasgow’s Nick Grigg to put his hand up for a squad place. The little Kiwi centre has enjoyed a good season for Glasgow, replacing Bennett with aplomb. He is small but quick over the first 20 metres and he tackles above his weight.
Key 1872 Battles:
Nick Grigg v Chris Deans.
What do you do with a problem like Greig Laidlaw? The question is as inevitable as it is unavoidable… can the veteran justify his place in the starting XV against the fast-improving Ali Price, pictured left?
This is Townsend’s single biggest issue when he takes over because the question he has to ask is not whether Laidlaw is worth a place on this tour, it is whether Laidlaw is his captain through the 2019 Rugby World Cup?
If the answer is no then there is little reason to take him on tour. Henry Pyrgos, Ali Price and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne should travel.
Laidlaw was Vern Cotter’s man, and he made his support for the Kiwi coach as obvious as diplomacy allowed when he was shown the door, but Townsend will be aware of the added extras that the Borderer brings: leadership, calm decision making under pressure and that priceless accuracy off the tee. Expect Laidlaw to travel.
The stand-offs will be Finn Russell plus one… probably Peter Horne who covers 10/12 with Kinghorn as a third choice if needs be.
Key 1872 Battles:
Ali Price v Sam Hidalgo-Clyne.
Townsend may have been tempted to give Jonny Gray a summer break since the lock has been on the treadmill for a while.
I would send him to work with sprint coach Margot Wells, who specialises in adding power and speed to a player, because Gray has an engine that will run all day but just the one gear.
That scenario seems unlikely given Jonny’s importance to the squad, although Townsend has options – two Gray brothers, one Grant Gilchrist, but he needs a fourth lock? Tim Swinson is the safe bet but Townsend might look to the future and include either Ben Toolis or Scott Cummings. The latter would have made a better challenge had he not missed most of the season with injury.
In the front row there is a possibility that WP Nel could be fit to travel but, however important he is, Townsend may think better of it with the South African having sat on the sidelines for so long. Alasdair Dickinson is in a similar position but seems unlikely to travel for fear of further damaging that troublesome calf. And you wonder if Townsend might favour Glasgow’s D’arcy Rae over Edinburgh’s Simon Berghan as number two, number three behind Zander Fagerson?
Key 1872 Battles:
Tim Swinson v Ben Toolis.
Grant Gilchrist v Jonny Gray.
Gordon Reid v Simon Berghan.
D’arcy Rae v Allan Dell.
Josh Strauss is out of the equation but Adam Ashe, pictured right, is playing regular rugby which is some compensation because there are few options elsewhere. Bath’s injury-stricken David Denton is finally fit but couldn’t make Bath’s match-day squad this weekend, while Edinburgh’s Magnus Bradbury is expected to resume training in mid-May, which may be too late. Ryan Wilson and Ashe should go as 8/6’s and John Barclay as a 6/8, and Townsend will probably take both Edinburgh opensides Hamish Watson and John Hardie if only because the latter can’t help getting hurt. Rob Harley has a shout as a 4/6, Bristol breakaway Mitch Eadie is the long shot and while Cornell du Preez, pictured right, still looks half the player he was three years ago, there is a phrase about beggars and choosers that may come to Townsend’s attention.
Key 1872 Battles:
The Glasgow pack v Hamish Watson.
Ryan Wilson v Cornell du Preez.