Glasgow players this morning may have reason to either be happy and relaxed or grim and determined, depending on the result at Murrayfield last night. Sticking my neck out I reckon that Edinburgh will have beaten Montpellier, and so their friends in the West can head for Allianz Park in the knowledge that they have already qualified for the Champions Cup quarter-final. So then they can enjoy themselves while –of course – being aware that beating Saracens with a four-try bonus point and denying them a losing one would give them, like Edinburgh, a home quarter-final, improbably as this may seem. On the other hand if Edinburgh have stumbled at the last hurdle in the pool, it’s a very different kettle of fish.
Glasgow do deserve a bit of luck. They have been unfortunate in their three home matches in the pool. Saracens beat them at Scotstoun, scoring the only try of the game, but that try should have been disallowed and would surely have been disallowed if the TMO had been asked to look back to an earlier phase in the build-up . Then their home match with Lyon was played in atrocious conditions, so bad that it was unlikely they would score the four tries needed for a bonus point. If they had got a bonus point that day they would already be on 20 points and securely in the quarter-final. Even last week their last home game against Cardiff was played in a howling gale and they lost both their captain Callum Gibbins and their young No 8 Matt Fagerson to injury before the match was ten minutes old. It says much for their character that they did contrive to secure the necessary win with a bonus point, though one has to admit that some of their defence was truly lamentable. If it is not very much better this afternoon, Saracens are likely to win by an embarrassing margin.
There can’t be many surprises in a Six Nations squad of 39 players, especially when you consider that we could all have already drawn up a rather long list of the absent injured. Indeed a couple of missing names may have attracted more attention that any of the inclusions. It’s not so long since Alex Dunbar was an essential member of the Scotland three-quarter line at either 12 or 13. Sadly he has suffered so many injuries to both head and body, rarely finishing a match he has started that, short of game-time, form and fitness, he finds himself out of the squad – which nevertheless includes six centres: Peter Horne, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Nick Grigg, Chris Harris and Chris Dean. I’m very pleased to see Dean included for the first time; he’s a player who has been making steady improvement over the last couple of years. It’s unlikely he will start against Italy, or even be in the match-day squad, but then it’s anybody’s guess who will be in the 12 and 13 jerseys that day, and not only because reading Gregor Townsend’s mind isn’t easy.
Some may, with reason think Dean’s Edinburgh colleague James Johnstone unfortunate not to be in the squad, for he has been in sparkling form. But how many centres do you need?
The most significant and, to me, surprising absence is Ross Ford. Of course the man with more than a 100 caps is approaching the end of the road. He missed most of last year on account of injury, and had made only a few appearances for Edinburgh this season. Indeed he is not even on the Edinburgh bench as first reserve to Stuart McInally, that position going to David Cherry who, in the absence of the injured Fraser Brown and George Turner, finds himself in this Scotland squad along with two other uncapped hookers, Glasgow’s Grant Stewart (man of the match against Cardiff Blues last week) and Jake Kerr of Leicester Tigers, of whom most of us, I guess, know very little. Townsend, as coach of Glasgow and now of Scotland, has never hesitated to extend his trust to the young and untried – how do we know if he can swim till we’ve tossed him into the pool? All the same, given the inexperience of this trio, one would have thought there was much to be said for having Ford on hand. It’s too soon to write his rugby obituary, but appropriate to say two things. First, his has been a remarkable career. Nobody plays more than a 100 Tests without being an exceptionally committed and consistent player. Second, the sad thing is that before he suffered the injury that removed him from the game for more than a year, he was, in the spring and summer of 2017 playing some of the best rugby of his long and distinguished career.