Hailing from the heart of the Borders, where myriad ancient local enmities run deep, Gregor Townsend could be excused for viewing the Edinburgh-Glasgow inter-city showdown in the manner of Crocodile Dundee and saying ‘that’s not a rivalry...’
However, after over three years as Warriors coach the Galashiels man has come to relish the annual double headers and, even when he was playing for the Border Reivers towards the end of his career, admits he looked upon the east-west showdown with pangs of envy.
“I was kind of jealous of them,” he said at Scotstoun yesterday after naming his team for the 1872 Cup first leg at BT Murrayfield on Sunday. “Jealous that they played for a trophy and we didn’t. And there’s obviously a big rivalry there.
“You’ve got two big cities away from rugby that are always rivals. Now they’re playing for a trophy, between Christmas and New Year, it’s a fantastic fixture. And now we’ve only got two pro teams it’s the biggest fixture for our fans throughout the year.”
Townsend is delighted Sunday’s game will be played in front of a record crowd for the fixture, perhaps 20,000, and added: “It’s great. Each year it has got more and more.
“I thought the atmosphere was excellent last year at Murrayfield, it was mainly Edinburgh fans cheering because we were not playing that well. From that 20,000 there are going to be seven or eight thousand Glasgow supporters which will make a lot of noise.
“I know it is a 67,000 seater stadium but 20,000 will create a really good atmosphere. It shows the appetite for professional rugby in Scotland.”
Losing their six-year grip on the 1872 Cup last season was a rare blip in an otherwise glorious campaign for the Warriors, but Townsend doesn’t feel that gives his players any extra motivation than they would have for these games anyway.
He said: “No, not at all. A lot of players played in that second game where they underperformed and Edinburgh deserved to win, so I’m sure the intrinsic motivation will be pushing them on if they get the chance to play.
“We work on how we can put the opponents coming up, what we can improve on from the week before, and we expect the players to be highly motivated. They certainly will be this weekend.”
With Mike Blair suffering from concussion after a hefty challenge from DTH van der Merwe at Scarlets last weekend, Townsend has handed former Edinburgh man Grayson Hart the scrum-half jersey for the game.
Stuart Hogg comes back in at full-back, as Tommy Seymour moves to the left wing, while Peter Horne steps in at centre for Alex Dunbar, who tweaked a hamstring in Wales.
In the back-row Ryan Wilson replaces Rob Harley, who has been ruled out for 12 weeks with a thumb injury at blindside, Chris Fusaro replaces Simone Favaro at open-side and Adam Ashe starts at No 8, with Josh Strauss sitting out.
Townsend said: “Stuart Hogg, Adam Ashe and Peter Horne had a week to work on conditioning and they were flying at training.
“This period, the period before, the period coming up – it’s tough rugby we play. We know guys can’t play more than four, five, six games in a row, and some are not allowed to. It’s a really good policy. It means players are fresh, and other players have opportunities to start.”
The Glasgow coach is expecting his players will have to work hard to get behind Edinburgh but is wary of the threat they pose coming forward too and said: “They’re the best defence in the league. They’ve conceded fewest tries, they’ve been very tough to break down, their set piece was very strong last year, they have arguably the best scrum.
“The set piece, the defence, the lineout drive is very good too. We’re going to have to look at different ways of playing against it. From an attacking point of view, they’re certainly playing more rugby than ever before. They’re ranked second in terms of offloads and ball in possession. So they provide more threats and we have to do our homework a lot this week. It will be interesting to see what happens.”
It may be reds versus blues at the national stadium on Sunday but it will be a far cry from the old international trial matches.
Nevertheless, Townsend is sure Vern Cotter and his staff will garner a lot of useful information.
“I would think it’s a great fixture for the Scotland coaches,” he said. “Going into the Six Nations they’ve got the majority of their players playing against each other that they can watch in two games, then they’ve got the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup so they get a good view of where the players are in terms of head-to-head form.
“If you’ve got not much between two players and they’re going head to head and one outplays the other, they’re going to be in a better position to play in the Six Nations.
“You’ll get some players thinking ‘This is one of my rivals, this guy was in the World Cup squad’, or ‘This guy’s been playing really well, he’s keen to take my place’.
“But I think as a team, and bigger than that a club, it means so much for our supporters and for us to do well in these fixtures.”