The opening round of the Guinness Pro12 showed us some of the best and worst of Scottish rugby. Another way of putting this is to say that, in Galway, Glasgow showed us what we hope is its skilful and adventurous future and, in Cardiff, Edinburgh’s display offered what we hope is now, or soon to be, its all-too-often dreary and unimaginative past.
Edinburgh may have redeemed themselves at home to the Scarlets by the time you read this but, in Cardiff, on what was admittedly a typically wet Welsh evening, there was no sparkle, only a dogged determination to keep the margin of defeat as narrow as possible.
In his time in charge, Alan Solomons has constructed a team that is usually hard to beat, but rarely much good at scoring tries.
Forward power has often been effectively deployed, but even this was lacking last Saturday. Edinburgh were badly beaten up front and, when that happens, they are even more clueless than most teams.
Moreover, though the defence was courageous, far too many first-time tackles were missed. You would think Edinburgh had played often enough against Nick Williams in his Ulster days to know that he must be tackled hard and low before he reaches, let alone breaches, the gain-line.
One felt sorry for young Nathan Fowles at scrum-half – and for his late replacement, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. Like the Israelites in their Egyptian captivity, they were compelled to try to make bricks without straw.
The contrast with Henry Pyrgos and his replacement, Ali Price, in Galway was marked. Though the Glasgow pack were in some difficulty in the set scrum, Jonny Gray and Tim Swinson dominated the line-out and Glasgow were quick and efficient at the breakdown. Consequently, Pyrgos and Price were in scrum-half heaven, on the front foot and getting clean ball.
Edinburgh’s defence was, well, purely defensive; Glasgow’s was aggressive. Admittedly, as Gregor Townsend has remarked, Connacht are committed to playing a wide passing game and this gives you the opportunity to turn the ball over. It’s one thing, however, to have an opportunity, another to take it, as Glasgow repeatedly did. The result was a display of glorious adventurous rugby.
Connacht may have been shorter than Glasgow of match practice – only one pre-league game against Montpellier – and they were missing one or two first-team players. Moreover, three of the stars of their title-winning team – Robbie Henshaw, A J McGinty and Ali Muldowney – have moved elsewhere. As against that, Leone Nakarawa has left Glasgow and Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Josh Strauss were all absent. Actually, of course, Glasgow are so rich in talent that it is difficult to know just what their best starting XV may be. It wouldn’t surprise me if Gregor Townsend can’t answer that question himself.
As it was, the back three – Stuart Hogg, Leonardo Sarto and Tommy Seymour – were in rampant form. Seymour is still, I suspect, underestimated by many outside Scotland; he is surely one of the best – because he is so alert – finishers among northern hemisphere wings. Peter Horne was adroit and imaginative at 10 and Alex Dunbar and Sam Johnson solid in the centre. Up front, Rob Harley made a splendid nuisance of himself as he has always done, and Ryan Wilson was good at 8 in a retreating scrum. Sadly, his foolish late tackle which was rewarded with a yellow card is the sort of thing he does too often. It is time he grew up.
Gray and Swinson both had a tremendous game. Jonny seemed to be running straighter and more directly than was often the case last year. His habit of running at an angle, crabbing across the field, does have the merit of almost always protecting the ball and ensuring it is recycled, but at the cost of losing forward momentum. In Galway, that momentum was evident and productive.
Leinster today in the new artificial pitch at Scotstoun will be a severe test, even though they are still without some of their Ireland players, notably Jonny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and the lighthouse-tall Devin Toner, though one should note that Sexton’s replacement, Joey Carbery, was named man of the match against Benetton Treviso last week.
Gregor Townsend has made replacements in the front row. Otherwise, the team is as it started against Connacht. Glasgow, in view of the demands on them made when the internationals kick off, need to build up points in the early weeks of the league season; four try, bonus-point victories desirable, even necessary. If they take their Galway form home they should do it, but no win against any of the Irish provinces comes easily. That said, it’s not so long when such victories came rarely to either Glasgow or Edinburgh. Irish rugby has been better than Scottish rugby for a long time now, too long, in the league, European competition and, of course, the Six Nations. Glasgow have successfully challenged the Irish supremacy. Time Edinburgh and Scotland did so too.