I f Edinburgh’s defeat in Bordeaux was disappointing and the Leinster-Saracens game in Dublin a sad example of how tedious professional rugby can be when neither side has the courage or imagination to move the ball and seek space, there were nevertheless things to delight one last weekend.
Two happily came from wing three-quarters. There were a couple of gorgeous tries by Toulouse’s South African star Cheslin Kolbe whose ability to swerve and side-step at pace left the Ulster and Ireland winger Jacob Stockdale clutching only thin air. Then in Bordeaux the quick-wittedness, speed of foot and resilience of Darcy Graham created a try for Damien Hoyland from what seemed the least promising of positions.
With Graham and Duhan van der Merwe Edinburgh have as brilliant a pair of wings, both natural try-scorers, as any club in the Guinness Pro14, and one would think that no matter how forward-orientated Edinburgh’s game has been in recent seasons, they should go into every match eager to get the ball wide to their wings as often as possible. It’s particularly pleasing that the two are very different in almost everything except their eye for the try-line: one swift, nimble-footed, resourceful and perhaps surprisingly strong; the other fast, powerful, direct, a daunting sight for any defender. Now qualified for Scotland, like Edinburgh’s Tim Visser before him, van der Merwe will surely be in Gregor Townsend’s squad for the autumn’s Nations Cup.
Darcy is one of those players like Finn Russell today, Chris Paterson and Roger Baird in the past, whom fans find themselves generally calling by their first name, perhaps because they inspire or inspired a certain protective feeling as well as admiration. I would guess that most Welsh fans felt that way about Shane Williams, and always spoke of him simply as “Shane”.
The fashion in recent years has been for big and powerful wingers, the sort of chaps who a generation or two ago would often have been assigned to the back row of the scrum. Van der Merwe certainly comes in that category, as does the splendid Frenchman Damian Penaud. But rugby still likes to think of itself as a game for all sorts and sizes, even if it sometimes seems that the claim is out of date. This is one more reason why wing three-quarters such as Darcy, Kolbe and Kotaro Matsushima give such pleasure.
Edinburgh’s defeat in Bordeaux was not as distressing as their loss to Ulster, for that was a match they had in their hands and let slip. Victory in Bordeaux was always unlikely and seemed impossible when they conceded two tries so early in the match. Consequently they did very well to get back into the game, even to the extent of being, briefly, within sight of a win.
They might have been closer still but for handling errors and mistakes of judgement, but while these were disappointing, they were less so than the loss of concentration which allowed Bordeaux to snuff out the possibility of defeat without themselves actually having to do anything particularly good.
This defeat means that for us in Scotland season 2019-20 has almost been laid to rest several months late – though there is still the Six Nations match against Wales called off at the last minute in March and now to be played at Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets on the last day of October, after which we can all look forward.
Sadly, we’ll still be doing this more with some apprehension, for the future of the season is still shrouded in a misty uncertainty.
There appears to be no chance at present of fans being admitted to grounds, even in pathetically small numbers, until the New Year anyway.
Meanwhile World Rugby’s chief executive has warned of Unions going bust,and asserts that the Six Nations tournament will lose £100 million if fans are shut out of matches. This is to see the least of it a gloomy prospect.
Some, however, are apparently complacent. The UK Sports Minister, a chap called Nigel Huddleston, told the Commons this week that “elite sport will be expected to look at ways in which it can support itself in the absence of fans”. Since fans are absent from grounds primarily because governments forbid them to be there, this strikes me as a piece of impertinence.
Mr Huddleston’s duty is to do the best for sport. He sounds like the wrong man for the job. Not by any means the only politician of which this can be said, of course.
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