Allan Massie: South Africa won't be worried by Lions yet - and what does Rory Sutherland Worcester deal say about domestic game?
“Don’t think that will have the Springboks much worried,” the brother-in-law said after the Lions’ opening match at Murrayfield.
Fair comment. There was some good play at Murrayfield, but no more than some. As preparation for the Test matches to come, it was almost irrelevant. South Africa aren’t going to play much like Japan. Perhaps the only similarity was out wide where the dazzling Kotaro Matsushima, once at least making Duhan van der Merwe look very heavy-footed, gave Lions wings a foretaste of what they may expect from the equally dazzling Cheslin Kolbe. Otherwise the South Africa forwards will set the Lions a much stiffer exam than Japan could, and the kicking from the Springbok halves will ask questions that were never put at Murrayfield.
The afternoon was of course marred by the injuries to Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric. Perhaps it was sentimental to think that AWJ might still have gone to South Africa as a non-playing captain, but it might also have made good sense, much of the captaincy of a touring team being done off the field. Then Warren Gatland might have appointed a playing captain match by match, as indeed he will do for the provincial games, with Stuart Hogg leading the team out this afternoon.
Gatland has made it clear that all who are fit will get opportunities in these first matches. No doubt he and his fellow coaches have an idea of what they think might be the Test XV, but they know that some players will force themselves into consideration, others will disappoint. You can play yourself into the Test XV and you can play yourself out of it. Then the physicality of top-level rugby is now such that it is a rare match which doesn’t leave a couple of players on the injured list, temporarily unavailable. So for any of us now to pick the team we would like to see starting the first Test is a futile, if agreeable, business. That said, it will be interesting to see how today’s partnership of Finn Russell at 10 and Owen Farrell at 12 works. It may be a very good combination, their qualities better balanced that , say, a Biggar-Farrell one .
Meanwhile on the domestic front, the news that one of our Scottish Lions, Rory Sutherland, is leaving Edinburgh for Worcester is a bit depressing. The usual line is trotted out: it may make him a better player and opens the door to another younger Scot. No doubt both these things are true. Nevertheless, the fact is that he is going to one of the weaker clubs in the English Premiership and his departure weakens Edinburgh.
What chance do Edinburgh and Glasgow have to compete effectively in the new multi-national league and the European Cups if, year after year, Scottish internationals move to England, as Sutherland, Van der Merwe and Adam Hastings are all doing this autumn or to France like Huw Jones and Finn Russell before him. Ireland’s success at both club and international level has been made possible by their retention of players. We are resigned to seeing them leave.
It is quite conceivable that in next year’s Six Nations, Scotland will field a starting XV with only four or five forwards from Edinburgh and Glasgow, and perhaps the scrum-half alone among the backs to be playing his club rugby this side of the Border.
As far as the national team goes this may not matter much, this might even make it stronger. Most of the successful Scotland sides have included a fair number of players from clubs in England. The 1984 Grand Slam winning side was an exception, but even in 1990 when club rugby was strong and better organized than in England, five of the starting XV were then playing their club rugby in England. The same of course has been true of Scottish football, from at least the day of the Wembley Wizards in 1928. That team’s selection indeed received fierce criticism because so few of the team were playing for Scottish clubs. Success stilled the criticism and I guess that would be the case if Gregor Townsend’s side were Six Nations champions next spring, with a starting XV featuring only five or six players from Edinburgh and Glasgow.
That would be all very well, but how it be if Edinburgh and Glasgow languished in the lower reaches of the new multi-national league and made no show in Europe? How if this continued for years? Would Glasgow still fill Scotstoun? Would Edinburgh play before a packed mini-Murrayfield? It seems unlikely. Do the Irish provinces look at us in wonder, or with pity, even contempt?