Historic cup clash can finish a trying year in Scottish rugby on a brighter note

CELEBRATING 140 years of rugby between Scotland’s major cities and great rivals, Glasgow and Edinburgh will go head-to-head at a new venue tonight knowing that they have a great responsibility to prove that elite players in this country do have the talent to set pulses racing.

The 2011-12 season finished on a high for Scotland’s top professionals with Edinburgh’s success in reaching the Heineken Cup semi-finals mirrored by Glasgow’s semi-final appearance in the RaboDirect PRO12 for the second time in three years. To top it off, the national squad returned from the summer tour to Australasia with a 100 per cent record of wins over the Wallabies, Fiji and Samoa.

But the year 2012 has slid painfully towards the 1872 Cup finale, Edinburgh ploughing through eight winless weeks before re-discovering the joy of victory in their last two RaboDirect PRO12 games, and Glasgow recently falling off a promising bandwagon of six consecutive wins with a run of four losses. And all against the backdrop of a whitewashed autumn Test series and defeat by Tonga that cost Scotland another head coach.

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But if any rugby match is capable of lifting spirits it is these, as Edinburgh return to Murrayfield for the return fixture on Saturday 29 December, ensuring two festive bites at the cherry for players and supporters.

Adding to the hype and celebratory nature of the fixture’s 140 years, the BBC and John Beattie put together an excellent programme broadcast this week, which delved into the rugby history of Scotland’s rival cities.

The fixture sprang from the success of the first recognised rugby international between Scotland and England in 1871, when Scotland beat their visitors at Raeburn Place, after theEnglish had answered an invitation placed in The Scotsman for a side to take up the challenge of playing a genuine Scotland team.

As Beattie recounted, players within that side then agreed to play in a match at Burnbank in Glasgow, just off Western Road, a venue then home to Glasgow Academicals rugby club, but, as explained by Glasgow historian Hugh Barrow, was also used by Rangers Football Club and cricket on occasions.

On 23 November, 1872 the Inter-City match was launched, and won by the visitors with a drop-goal by Edinburgh Accies’ internationalist Tom Marshall.

The BBC documentary provided a colourful illustration of the world stars who have graced the fixture, from Eric Liddell to Andy Irvine, and included recollections by British and Irish Lions caps Sandy Carmichael, Ian McLauchlan, Gavin and Scott Hastings, as well as Irvine, with Jim Calder, Shade Munro and Chris Paterson adding their thoughts.

Tonight’s match is the first 1872 Cup affair in the famous athletics venue. Also new is the involvement of a host of players not steeped in the rivalry.

Glasgow’s new Kiwi wing Sean Maitland has been taken aback by the interest around the fixture, and compared it favourably to Super 15 clashes between his former Crusaders team and fellow title winners the Auckland Blues.

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He will face Tim Visser on the flank tonight in one of several much-anticipated confrontations that will exercise the minds of supporters of both teams, as well as Scotland, and newly-confirmed interim coach Scott Johnson. Normally a garrulous individual, Visser was slightly more circumspect when asked about the duel and Maitland this week.

“I don’t know much about Sean,” he said. “There was a bit of hype about him coming, and he has obviously done well in New Zealand, so he is an exciting player for them.”

But, he knows enough about the dangers on the other wing, in the shape of another incomer to the Scottish game, though perhaps thankfully for Visser one tied to Canada and so not a rival for Six Nations places.

“DTH (Van der Merwe) is a different character,” he said. “He always seems to score, which is fairly annoying for me. He is a good player and a good finisher, which is good to see at the other end of the M8.

“They have not necessarily been too good at finishing tries, but whenever he is on the pitch he seems to do that. He is someone I definitely respect as a player.”

The winger was keen to play down the suggestion of there being extra pressure with Maitland adding to the competition for places in the Scotland squad, and the fact that this will be his first 1872 Cup experience when the Scotland jersey is not only his to grasp, but his to hold on to. But he struggled.

“It’s always good to measure yourself against your direct opponent. There’s no harm in that; it makes it that little bit more personal. It means there’s a little bit more fight in the game.

“Nowadays, every game you play is a trial match because coaches are always watching and you’re always graded. You need to be at your best in every game you play, so in that respect I don’t think this one is any different. It’s just a derby game and it’s all about winning, and we’ll take a bad performance if we win.

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“But, yes, there probably is a bit more pressure behind it when there are international spots at stake. It will be like that throughout the team: people coming up against rivals in a lot of positions. So, there is a little bit more pressure, but where I am in my career at the moment, if I lost my place in the Scotland team it would be down to my own performance, and it’s like that in every game. That’s the mentality I have tried to maintain throughout my whole career and I think it is what has got me to where I am right now.”

Tension is in the air. These games are invariably tight affairs, on the scoreboard and in the way players stick to each other, most vividly when Warriors’ openside Chris Fusaro and Scotland lock Scott MacLeod lost it in a full-on boxing bout with Edinburgh a few years ago. Both were red-carded, and shook each other’s hand as they walked off. It is that raw, natural rugby spirit, one that has been part of Scottish sport for 140 years and warmed this rivalry through decades, which emerges when players are given the all-too-rare sight for Scots of a cup.

Prop Ryan Grant knows that. After giving up a career in the Army to turn pro, he was handed to Edinburgh when the Borders closed in 2007, and spent most of his time in the gym, lucky to get a shot on the bench never mind in a starting side, before being pushed across to Glasgow. In the past three seasons the Kirkcaldy-born forward has proved his mettle, and this year took over Scotland’s No 1 jersey from Allan “Chunk” Jacobsen, his opposite number tonight and now-retired Test mentor.

“I don’t need any help getting up for an Edinburgh game,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve got scores to settle there. I know fewer of the Edinburgh boys now but I still remember my time there and it’s good to get out on the pitch and try and smash them.

“As I’ve said many times before, Chunk has been good to me; a good mentor and person to look up to. I think this might be the first time we have both started in the same game. It should be good fun.”

The wry smile returned. There will be an edge tonight, from Grant and Jacobsen in the No 1 jerseys to potential Scotland full-backs Peter Murchie and Greig Tonks. The pack battle will be decisive again.

Who will get on top between Grant, Pat MacArthur and Moray Low in the Warriors’ front row and visitors Jacobsen, Ross Ford and Willem Nel, with quality front rows also primed for appearances off the bench? In the second row Al Kellock and Tim Swinson against Grant Gilchrist and Izak van der Westhuizen is an intriguing one, while it will be worth the ticket price alone to see who dominates the mouthwatering back row clash of Rob Harley, Chris Fusaro and Ryan Wilson up against David Denton, Roddy Grant and Stuart McInally – six players all with genuine hopes of wearingScotland jerseys next year.

Greig Laidlaw will start at scrum-half for Edinburgh with Piers Francis at stand-off, but Nick de Luca has not recovered from a facial injury so James King takes the 12 jersey with Matt Scott outside him, to face Sean Lamont. Scotland winger Lee Jones has recovered from a head knock and so joins Visser and Tonks in a back three that will hope they have the ball to wreak the havoc they are capable of, but they face a cracking contest with an eager Warriors trio who live for ball in hand and running.

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With league points and reputations at stake, it may not be pretty, but the gloom of 2012 has the chance to lift under the Scotstoun floodlights this evening in the latest chapter of Scotland’s longest-running city rivalry.

Glasgow: Peter Murchie, Sean Maitland, Sean Lamont, Peter Horne, DTH Van der Merwe, Ruaridh Jackson, Niko Matawalu, Ryan Wilson, Chris Fusaro, Rob Harley, Tim Swinson, Al Kellock (captain), Moray Low, Pat MacArthur, Ryan Grant. Subs: Dougie Hall, Gordon Reid, German Araoz, Jonny Gray, James Eddie, Henry Pyrgos, Duncan Weir, Stuart Hogg

Edinburgh: Greig Tonks, Lee Jones, Matt Scott, James King, Tim Visser, Piers Francis, Greig Laidlaw (captain), Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford, Willem Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Izak van der Westhuizen, David Denton, Roddy Grant, Stuart McInally. Subs,: Andy Titterrell, John Yapp, Geoff Cross, Sean Cox, Netani Talei, Richie Rees, Ben Atiga, Dougie Fife.

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