The squeaky wheel gets the grease. At least that ‘s my excuse for a reasonably Glasgow-centric series of Breakdowns in recent weeks.
All the best stories since the Rugby World Cup have been coming out of Scotstoun. There was the Dave Rennie to Australia story confirmed and then the quick succession of Scotland forwards coach Danny Wilson.
That was followed swiftly by the Leone Nakarawa returns saga, which is ongoing. All that time there was the Warriors’ stuttering start to the season, the return of their high-profile young half-backs Adam Hastings and George Horne – potentially the two figures that could replace the departed Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell in star quality – and the fact they are competing in the Heineken Champions Cup.
At Edinburgh meanwhile, they’ve rolled along quietly under the radar. And been doing more than reasonably.
The effect of Richard Cockerill’s tenure as head coach, now in its third year, has been to significantly increase the club’s representation in the Scotland squad. Indeed, one could argue that the absences for them during the World Cup were more significant than those endured by Glasgow.
But Edinburgh had a decent record when the top men were away and are well positioned for a play-off run in the PRO14 with two away wins in the bag, at Cardiff and at Munster, the second of those rare treasure no matter who is playing for the men in red.
They’re still unbeaten in their Challemge Cup pool, as even when the top players returned from Japan Cockerill has adopted an entirely different selection plan to last season.
This time last year Edinburgh were on a thrilling run which encompassed five wins in their Heineken Cup pool and two over Glasgow in the 1872 Cup. During that spell Cockerill sent out just about the same starting XV every week, riding his best team to an unexpected European home quarter-final.
But that run was simultaneously the making of Edinburgh’s season nand the ruining of it. Once the little matter of the 6 Nations had passed and Edinburgh reassembled for the Heineken quarter-final against Munster, the players looked gassed. The quarter-final was lost narrowly, and Edinburgh fell away alarmingly in the last month of the season, missing the PRO14 play-offs.
It might be partly expdiency, but Cockerill has changed tack this year, and learned to trust the fringe players and the depth of his squad. It’s a better squad than it was a year ago, and he had no choice but to use some of them when the internationlists were away.
Since they returned, he’s talked publicly about the let-down many of them feel after the Japan debacle and the necessity to let them re-charge and re-focus. As a result, rotation has continued as the internationals – who after a hard season, a busy summer of preparation and the World Cup itself – are probably in need of some time off.
Cockerill has often insisted his elite players must “front up week-on-week” but he’s been a lot more accommodating this season.
And it’s worked, so far. But the best examination comes this next 10 days as Edinburgh face Glasgow twice in the uncommon role – at least recently – of being clearly the better team.
Edinburgh have won the 1872 Cup both times in Cockerill’s time as head coach, and both times when it seemed the Warriors were on the up and were clearly favoured to win.
The roles are reversed this time. Apart maybe at half-back, I can’t think of anywhere on the pitch where I prefer Glasgow’s group to Edinburgh’s, and even then the duo of Jaco van der Walt and Henry Pyrgos are solid citizens and decision-makers.
Only Cockerill knows what his first choice back row is, but he has a glut of talent compared to the Warriors, who will probably be without Matt Fagerson, their best player this season in that area, for both games.
You’d narrowly take the combo of Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis over Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings on current form. Edinburgh’s front row of Pierre Schoeman, Stuart McInally and WP Nel are ahead of Oli Kebble, Fraser Brown and Zander Fagerson.
The Glasgow backs have looked a bit of a mess this season, with centres interchanging weekly and the back three off colour and missing Stuart Hogg.
Sam Johnson has been the only Glasgow back to really stand out this season. Matt Scott and Mark Bennett for Edinburgh have renewed a strong partnership, while George Taylor – who deservedly got a contract extension this week – has been hugely impressive.
The back three of Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe is much more threatening than Glasgow’s current mixture.
Cockerill hates the idea that Edinburgh are favourites, and was winding up the Warriors again on Monday. But here’s a real test to see whether he’s keeping his team grounded.
Edinburgh have ambushed Glasgow at the top of their game, but I can’t see it happening the other way around. It should be two wins for Edinburgh again this Christmas.