Ithink it was a French journalist who first made the distinction between the piano-players and the piano-shifters, the former being of course the backs, the latter the forwards. It was a fair distinction a long time ago when the respective roles of backs and forwards were more distinct than they are now, and it certainly made good sense when one considered the game in France.
Those of us with long memories still happily recall the glories of French three-quarter play, and speak lovingly of the Boniface brothers, Jo Maso, Philippe Sella and others. Yet we recognised even then that they depended on the skill and brute force – sometimes brutal power – of the men up front, while the interaction of piano-players and shifters was orchestrated by the man in the No 9 jersey – the Napoleonic “petit caporal”. Much has changed but the “petit caporal” remains the conductor, and it has been agreeable to see how Greig Laidlaw has been playing the Napoleonic role for Clermont-Auvergne as to the manner born.
The distinction between backs and forward is less clear-cut than it used to be. Backs are expected to defend or secure ball at the tackle point; forwards now handle at least as much and as skilfully as backs, for the days are long gone when Bill McLaren would chortle with amused pleasure at the sight of a ball-carrying prop. Nevertheless, blurred though the distinction may now be, it remains the case that the piano-players can rarely delight us unless the shifters have done their bit and established their supremacy.
Which reflection naturally brings me to the Inter-City matches, both won by Edinburgh. For some seasons now we have enjoyed, and been thrilled by, the skill and adventure of Glasgow’s piano-players; and quite right too. But Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh have demonstrated that the old verities still hold good. Forwards, as the saying was, win matches; backs determine by how much they are won. Of course this isn’t always the case, but it is the case more often than not.
Cockerill has transformed Edinburgh, and he has done so by making them like the great Leicester teams in which he played, and like those which he later coached. He has turned a soft team into a hard one, and there must be a special satisfaction for him in beating Glasgow and snuffing out their adventurous play two weeks in succession –a special satisfaction because his reign as Leicester’s coach came to an end, in part at least, because Glasgow’s backs ran riot against the Tigers in the European Champions Cup.
Of course Glasgow have themselves a pretty good set of piano-shifters, good enough for them to be where they are, at the top of their Conference in the Pro 14 and with a very good chance of qualifying for the Heineken quarter-finals. Even so they rarely manage to dominate. Though they have beaten Lyon, first away, then at home – a considerable feat – there were long passages in both games in which their piano-shifters came off very much second-best.
The shift in balance between Glasgow and Edinburgh is likely, one would suppose, to be reflected in Gregor Townsend’s selection for the Six Nations. Injuries permitting, it’s likely that Glasgow will provide four of the starting piano-players, with the back division completed by Sean Maitland, Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw, with Glasgow also supplying the half-backs on the bench – Adam Hastings and either Ali Price or George Horne. On the other hand it is possible that Johnny Gray will be the only Glasgow piano-shifter in the starting XV – though even this isn’t certain, given how well Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis have been playing, not forgetting Exeter’s Sam Skinner. Edinburgh will surely provide the front row and at least one of the flankers, perhaps both Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie. If Edinburgh’s Bill Mata was Scottish-qualified, he would be at No 8, but alas he isn’t. So that position may go to a Glasgow man – the very experienced Ryan Wilson, young Matt Fagerson or the resurgent Adam Ashe – unless Gregor makes what might be called a left-field selection and decides that No 8 is the position in which Sam Skinner can best shift pianos for Scotland.
You can win occasional international matches without achieving supremacy up front if your backs are capable, as Scotland’s are, of scoring tries from nowhere, but you can’t win consistently unless your forwards regularly shift the pianos more effectively than the opposition. So the question is whether what Cockerill has done with Edinburgh can be carried over to the Six Nations and the World Cup. To repeat the old adage: forwards win matches, backs determine by how much you win. Ireland have some brilliant piano-players, but their success is built on the skill and power of their piano-shifters. Not only are they very good, but Joe Schmidt is in the fortunate position of having two complete sets of them, at least 16 piano-shifters of genuine international class. That’s why they are champions and have beaten New Zealand. We’re some way behind them still, but what Cockerill has achieved in Edinburgh represents a big step in the right direction.