I t’s a warm autumn day as I write, and it looks as if Saturday and Sunday may be fine, too. Lovely rugby weather and looking at the card for the quarter-finals of the two European Cups you might even be ready to sing, like the little girl in the Browning poem, “God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world.” But, sadly, it ain’t. The rest of the card is blank. Rugby grounds are deserted, and most of these European matches will be played behind closed doors, while in the few that aren’t, only a very small token number of spectators will be admitted.
Still, be thankful for small mercies and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. There’s much to relish in what is on offer. Even though Glasgow failed to reach the knockout stage of the Champions Cup, there is still some Scottish interest there with Finn Russell at Racing92, Duncan Taylor and Sean Maitland at Saracens, Stuart Hogg (if fit), Jonny Gray and perhaps Sam Skinner at Exeter, and Rory Hutchinson at Northampton Saints.
Of more immediate concern is the opportunity given to Edinburgh to put their Ulster defeat behind them and advance to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup. The odds, one has to say, are against them. Their hosts Bordeaux –Begles were leading the French Top14 by eight points when time was called on last season’s league. In the same Champions Cup pool as Edinburgh, they were held to a draw at Murrayfield, then won the return 32-17, scoring four tries to two, at the Stade Chaban-Delmas.
It’s a challenge indeed. If it looked a little less daunting than it was last season, the formidable Fijian centre Semi Radradra having been lured to Bristol by Pat Lam, the absence from Edinburgh’s XV of the injured Duhan van der Merwe, who scored a length of the field try in the January game, rather cancels this out. Nor does it help that Edinburgh’s other try scorer that day, Mark Bennett, is also injured.
In all there are seven changes from the side that lost to Ulster a fortnight ago, more than one had expected, because it seemed that the players who let that match slip from their grasp might have been those most determined and best suited to put things right.
Edinburgh were favourites to beat Ulster at Murrayfield and should have done so. Yet one senses that, as with our national side, they feel the weight of expectation as a heavy burden and are still more comfortable as underdogs than favourites. Given the history of results over the years, this is not surprising. You may say there will be no sustainable improvement until this mindset changes. Fair enough, but it’s the old chicken-and-egg question: which comes first? The best teams expect to win close matches, but they do so only because winning has become a habit. Does any club in the Guinness Pro14 go to Dublin confident of beating Leinster?
Edinburgh know, however, that though their opponents were on their way to be champions of France when Covid-19 called a halt, they haven’t had a long enough run of success to have developed the self-assurance that distinguishes Leinster and Saracens now, or Toulon a few years ago.
A half-hour or so after the final whistle in Bordeaux thoughts and eyes can turn to Dublin. Can Leinster extend their undefeated run, which now stands at 23, or will Saracens in what will, should they lose, be their last significant match until this time next year, march on for at least one more round. If so, they will have to do it without the suspended Owen Farrell.
I wouldn’t put it beyond them. One thing is clear. Whatever financial misdemeanours there have been, the Saracens’ spirit hasn’t been daunted.
Although a handful of players have left, such as the talented Wales centre Nick Tompkins only on a one-season loan, most of their stars have stayed despite the relegation to the Championship.
Half of the England pack – the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and Jamie George – are still there as are Farrell himself, Sean Maitland, Duncan Taylor, Alex Goode, Richard Wigglesworth and the captain Brad Barritt, though he is on the verge of retirement.
They have also recruited the Welsh scrum-half Aled Davies and Glasgow and Scotland’s Tim Swinson. The XV being fielded today is one that nobody should write off.
Beating Leinster in Dublin is as hard an assignment as any in European rugby. Drawing on the products of the highly competitive Dublin Schools, then developing them in their own Academy, Leinster have achieved what every coach desires. Players drop out, retire or move on, young ones are brought in, and settle at once. The teams changes but remains the same, except only in one respect; it continues to improve.
Whoever wins in Dublin today will be stretching a hand out towards the cup.
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