Allan Massie: Season of uncertainty for Edinburgh and Glasgow
Off with the old season, on with the new, as the Guinness PRO14 gets underway, though, at least temporarily, it’s reduced to being the PRO12 again, in the absence of South African clubs. All remains uncertain, the situation precarious. A reminder of just how precarious comes from France, where Racing 92’s match against La Rochelle has just been postponed because a number of the Racing staff, though not apparently players, have tested positive for the virus. Meanwhile Jamie Ritchie is absent from Edinburgh’s team today and Tom Gordon and Zander Fagerson from Glasgow’s because they have been in company with people who have tested positive, though none of the three has himself. There will be more of this, alas, in the weeks to come.
Edinburgh have an easier start than Glasgow, being at home to the Ospreys. The immediate question is whether they have shaken off the disappointment of their knockout defeats at the hands of Ulster and Bordeaux-Begles.
Actually,they played well enough in Bordeaux after a disastrous first ten minutes to allow one to believe that morale and confidence should be high enough to let them do the job this evening. Ospreys are coming off a dismal season in which they won only two of twenty matches in the League and Europe. They were, for the first time, the weakest of the Welsh clubs.Their new head coach, Toby Booth, says they are on a journey and there will be no quick fix.
Even without Ritchie and the injured Bill Mata and Duhan van der Merwe, this is a match Edinburgh should win, even comfortably. It would be a sad set-back if they don’t.
Edinburgh have made progress over the last two years. Glasgow have fallen a bit back. Of course it can be easier to improve and rise from the depths than to maintain a high standard. There are extenuating factors. No club in Europe could lose players like Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell without being weakened.
Now Jonny Gray has also gone and it remains to be seen if his big brother Richie, now returned to the fold but on bench duty today, can after so many injuries once again be the player of power, pace and skill that he was four or five years ago. Several of the outstanding Glasgow team of a couple of years back are still around but some of them – Tommy Seymour, Peter Horne, Ryan Wilson, Chris Fusaro, Rob Harley – surely have more great days behind them than ahead.
So new coach Danny Wilson has his work cut out, all the more so because it has proved impossible to recruit ready-made replacements. There is a suggestion that Glasgow will have to play a more conservative game, though Wilson’s decision to switch Huw Jones from centre to full-back doesn’t suggest a reluctance to see his team ready to attack daringly from deep. This can, of course, be dangerous as Glasgow discovered when suffering a humiliatingly heavy defeat to Leinster a few months ago, and it is also true, if somewhat depressing, that most tries in the professional game are scored once you have established a position in the opposing 22, and often from very short range.
Nevertheless, with halves of the quality of Adam Hastings, Ali Price or George Horne, and when Sam Johnson, currently injured, is fit to be at 12, Glasgow have a midfield trio capable of finding holes in any defence and shining in broken play.
There are easier places to start a new campaign than the Sportsground in Galway. Connacht , like Glasgow, may not be quite the team they were when they won a notable semi-final against Glasgow three years ago, a match in which Finn Russell suffered a serious head injury, but they are always hard to beat at home. They may not play quite as adventurous rugby as they did then, when Pat Lam was coaching them, but they have come a very long way from the days when they were the poor relation of Irish rugby, feeding on scraps and giving frightening chase to Eric Elwood’s monstrous Garryowens.
Last week Saracens very nearly put the same stranglehold on Racing 92 that they had on Leinster in the quarter-final, and it took a moment of vision and the most delicate of chips from Finn Russell to get behind their defence and create the try to win the match.
No wonder Racing have extended his contract by three years. No wonder his team-mate Simon Zebo in an interview given before the semi-final described him as “a little genius”.
A tough one, too, for Zebo also recalled a match against Munster a few months ago when Finn halted C J Stander in his tracks as he made for the try-line and knocked him backwards, to the consternation, Zebo said , of his own old Munster colleagues.
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