Allan Massie: Edinburgh less exciting than Glasgow but still more effective
Richard Cockerill’s side have strength where it matters most while Warriors are not quite what they were
Well, the day has arrived even though you can’t yet flock to the ground, and Murrayfield will still be eerily empty when the teams take the field. “What’s new?” some may sardonically mutter. There have been many matches since Edinburgh made Murrayfield their home ground when there were so few spectators that the now fashionable social distancing could have been practised even if they had been commanded to be the length of a pole-vaulter’s pole apart.
No matter: the game is on and last season’s season is resuming. For Edinburgh there’s the prize of a Pro14 semi-final, and it will be astonishing if over the two inter-city matches they don’t get the single point needed to take them to the knock-out stage. For Glasgow there’s only pride a stake, but this is a powerful incentive.
The advantage lies with Edinburgh. Over the last year or 18 months they have generally been more impressive than Glasgow, less exciting perhaps, but more effective. They have come a long way since Richard Cockerill took over as coach; they are harder mentally and better organised than they were. They have strength where it matters most; in the front-row and back-row of the scrum, while a back three of Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham (though he will miss today’s game) and Duhan van der Merwe would be welcomed by almost any club in the four Lions countries.
As against that their midfield – halves and centres – looks comparatively weak, unlikely to alarm good opponents, though it will be more impressive if Mark Bennett, at last, one trusts, free of injuries, can recapture the form which made him so exciting four or five years ago, and had me comparing him to Hawick’s Jim Renwick, the most mischievous and brilliant Scottish centre of the last 20 years of the amateur game.
In contrast Glasgow are not quite what they were. There have been many great days when they proudly carried the Scottish flag in Europe and the Pro 12/14. There have been great days, notably the final which won them the league and a 50-point demolition of Leicester at Welford Road. They would probably have gone further than the quarter-final of the Heineken Champions Cup if they hadn’t repeatedly come up against Saracens.
No club could lose players like Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray without being weakened. The financial constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic mean that any hope of acquiring a ready-made replacement for Hogg at full-back has been shelved. Adam Hastings has of course developed very quickly both for Glasgow and Scotland, so much so that Russell’s departure weakened Glasgow less than one feared it would.
The return of Richie Gray may, depending on fitness and form, go some way to compensate for younger brother Jonny’s departure to Exeter, but for all his flamboyance and lineout prowess Richie has never matched Jonny’s work-rate. Someone is going to have to make a lot of tackles to compensate for Jonny’s absence.
The return of Leone Nakarawa would give a boost to any team (though he is missing for these first two matches) while with the Fagerson brothers and young Scott Cummings Glasgow don’t lack young talent up-front.
Behind the scrum they have no worries at half-back, whether Ali Price or George Horne is partnering Hastings, and they are well supplied in the centre. Their back three may not quite match Edinburgh’s but are no slouches.
However, it’s strength in depth that Glasgow now lack, as their new coach Danny Wilson has been quick to admit. They will lose at least ten players when Gregor Townsend comes calling and will have to rely to an unusual extent on young fledglings. Fortunately they also have a number of experienced stalwarts whose international days are probably behind them: notably Ryan Wilson, Rob Harley and Chris Fusaro.
Given that Price and Horne will surely both be called up for international duty, the very promising young Jamie Dobie will surely get more outings than someone of his tender years is entitled to expect, while other youngsters like Stafford McDowall should get a fair number of matches and the chance to shine. All the same one can’t help thinking that the middle weeks of the season may be hard going for Glasgow.
All this of course is speculative. One can’t tell if we shall have an uninterrupted season. The virus is like the IRA; it hasn’t gone away, you know. The two South African teams may not be able to take part in the Pro14. Travel between the UK, the Republic of Ireland, France and Italy may be disrupted. Quarantine may be imposed from time to time.
We can only hope for the best, and hope too that it won’t be long before spectators are admitted to the grounds, even if only at first a limited number. We are edging back to normality, but the road is still a difficult one. Meanwhile we can be thankful for the first small mercies.
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