Good-bye, friendlies. The real stuff starts this weekend. Actually the Top 14 got going in France a week ago, and Sky’s somewhat exiguous round-up programme afforded the happy sight of Finn Russell scoring two tries on his league debut for Racing 92 against Toulon.
It was an away win, and away wins aren’t that common in the Top 14. This week Racing entertain (if that’s the right word) Clermont-Auvergne whose very new-look side looked awesomely powerful, indeed frightening, as they ran up a huge score against an admittedly rather hapless Agen.
Edinburgh will have played the Ospreys before this column appears. If they have managed to win down in Swansea we can at least begin to believe that Richard Cockerill is really transforming them from perennial under-achievers into the sort of formidable unit that can be a title contender. They should have learned from their disappointing loss to Munster in last season’s knock-out stage, disappointing because they were by some way the better side, in control for much of the game, nevertheless let it slip away.
Glasgow also start away from home, and may perhaps think themselves lucky that their visit to the Galway Sportsground is taking place on what may, one hopes, be a mild September afternoon rather than, as is more usual, on a horrid, cold, wet and windy evening. That said, though Connacht may not be quite as strong as when they won the league when coached by Pat Lam a couple of seasons ago, nobody looks for an easy match in Galway. Coming away with a win feels like a happy escape. It will, however, be strange to see a Connacht side that isn’t being chivvied, driven on and inspired by their captain John Muldoon. He meant at least as much to Connacht as Al Kellock did to Glasgow.
If Edinburgh ended last season with their reputation enhanced, Glasgow’s was just a bit tarnished. They fell away in the last weeks and their semi-final at Scotstoun against the Scarlets was a sad affair, their game littered with mistakes. Their season actually started to go wrong in the first Champions Cup matches. Failing to get out of a pool in which their opponents were Leinster, Montpellier and Exeter, was no disgrace – and of course Leinster went on to win the Cup. But it was worrying that they were dominated up-front by all three opponents.
Even their one victory, the return home game against Exeter, was made possible only by much determined defence, failure of Exeter to take their chances, and three gloriously audacious Glasgow tries, scored from deep in their own half.
Unlike Edinburgh, Glasgow have recruited sparingly. Their squad is very much the mixture as before – without, of course, Finn Russell, the man with the touch of genius. So one assumes that Dave Rennie is confident that a good pre-season has left his side stronger, and in particular that a number of the youngsters thrown into the deep end last season are now more able to hold their own when up against the big battalions. All the same, Glasgow are still often likely to come off second best in the power game, which means that they have to be accurate when in possession, clever and alert to seize any chance to counter-attack. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rennie has had them watching the All Blacks’ demolition of Australia last week in order to impress on them the importance of taking opportunities when they have secured or been gifted a turnover.
The leagues begin today also, a welcome reminder that though, almost inevitably, press coverage concentrates on the professional game, the heart of rugby is still the amateur club game. While it’s true that most clubs find it difficult, indeed impossible, to field as many XVs as they may once have done, and this is particularly the case with the big city clubs originally attached to a school or college, it is equally true that there are now rugby clubs in parts of Scotland which were rugby deserts 50 or 60 years ago. Many of these clubs will probably never produce players who will go on to the professional game (though of course many Edinburgh, Glasgow and Scotland players had their first rugby experience, and learned the game, with their local club before being talent-spotted).
What we should always remember is without the club game and the thousands of enthusiasts who give their time and energies to working for and supporting their clubs, the rugby community and indeed the sport itself would soon wither and die. Furthermore it is club rugby which reminds us that sport is essentially a recreation, something practised for enjoyment. So for me it’s down to Philiphaugh this afternoon to watch Selkirk play Kirkcaldy in, one hopes, the sort of autumn weather which encourages running rugby.