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Glasgow big favourites for “the Players’ Game”

Gregor Townsend has recalled Warriors skipper Al Kellock for the 1872 Cup first leg.
Gregor Townsend has recalled Warriors skipper Al Kellock for the 1872 Cup first leg.

The fact that the 1872 Cup is “the players’ game” will be enough to shake off any complacency overwhelming favourites Glasgow have before today’s first leg of the festive derbies against Edinburgh.

Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend believes the lure of the historic trophy and that fact that this is the one match the players look forward to most will concentrate the minds rather than the tide of recent history being square against the capital club at a sold-out Scotstoun this afternoon.

With European quarter-finals and PRO12 play-offs to play for Glasgow might have bigger fish to fry than the parochial doubleheader, but while Townsend hinted the coaches they might feel that way, he stressed it was different for his team.

“I know I have talked up our games in the past few weeks, but this is the game everyone looks forward to the most,” he said. “Players want to play in this game more than any other because it is the biggest crowd of the year, and it is up against our direct rivals, especially for the Scottish qualified guys.

“It also does something to the guys when there is a trophy involved, it actually becomes the number one factor, I feel.

“I always used to be very envious of the Glasgow and Edinburgh players who got to play in this when I was playing at the Borders. It also means a lot to our supporters. We are sold out here and a lot of Glasgow supporters go to Murrayfield, which shows how much they want the team to win.”

Absolutely crucial to Glasgow beyond the bragging rights and the trophy are league points. With their rivals at the top of the PRO12 all involved in derbies in Ireland and Wales, back-to-back wins for a second successive year could push them into a commanding position as 2015 begins.

Certainly the odds are squarely against Edinburgh this afternoon and over the two legs as a whole.

The only two players taking part who know what it’s like to be on a winning Edinburgh team in Glasgow are actually playing for the Warriors, recalled skipper Al Kellock and Dougie Hall, although the veteran hooker starts on the bench. Both were replacements for the capital club when they won 25-16 at Hughenden 11 years ago to the day, moving along the M8 later in their careers.

In addition to that record, there’s the fact that Edinburgh have not one the two-legged 1872 Cup since 2009, and not actually beaten the Warriors since 2011. Furthermore, there’s the recent disparity in league position within the PRO12, as Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons admits.

“As I’ve said time and again, they’ve had stability and consistency over a long period of time,” he said. “They’ve had Sean (Lineen), who did a splendid job to build the foundation there and now they have Gregor, who has done a splendid job in taking it on.

“Their last two PRO12 seasons in particular have been excellent, and they’re at the top of the league this year with the bulk of the Scottish international team.

“We’ve won our last three games, yes, but it’s all relative. We haven’t played the same strength of opposition as they have. They played Toulouse and Munster, and neither London Welsh or Treviso are on that kind of level.”

However, without directly attempting to copy their rivals, Solomons feels Edinburgh are getting closer to the kind of club “culture” which binds the Warriors together and most at Scotstoun believe is the key to their recent success.

“Glasgow have done exceptionally well in that area but we’ve got to look at ourselves and not compare ourselves to them,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, it is really encouraging how much we’ve advanced. The realisation of our vision is starting to come through, the home-grown youngsters coming through, the strength in depth is so much better.”

While opening out to score six tries against Treviso bode well, Solomons added it was only because the fundamentals had been dealt with first.

“The way we’ve tried to build Edinburgh Rugby, starting from scratch, was get the conditioning right, make sure our setpiece is solid, then get our defence right, and from there you move on to evolving your attack,” he continued. “We’re still building but we’re making advances.”

The veteran head coach doesn’t agree with Townsend that the trophy is a major factor in the contest.

“In itself it’s important, and there’s a great tradition attached to it, we’re all respectful of that,” he added. “But the game is of such a nature that even if there weren’t a trophy at stake, it’d still be massive.

“Think of games between Gala and Melrose back in the day, you didn’t need a trophy for those games. The rivalry was enough.”

Edinburgh’s lengthy injury list is showing signs of abating at last, and they can recall the crucial figure of Scotland hooker Ross Ford, missing since the Autumn Internationals with a back problem. Lock Anton Bresler, absent against Treviso with an ear infection, is also fit to return, while Phil Burleigh is fit enough for a bench spot. Dougie Fife will make his 50th appearance for the club.

Townsend’s response to the Munster win is to make nine personnel changes, all resulting in starting Scottish internationalists.

Stuart Hogg and Alex Dunbar come in in the backs, while Ryan Grant, Pat MacArthur, Tom Swinson, Al Kellock and Ryan Wilson start in the forwards. Sean Lamont, retained on the wing, will make his 100th PRO12 appearance in his career, with the Warriors and with the Scarlets.

Glasgow (vs Edinburgh, 1872 Cup/Guinness PRO12, Scotstoun Stadium, ko 2.40 pm, live on Sky Sports): Stuart Hogg; Sean Lamont, Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, DTH van der Merwe; Duncan Weir, Henry Pyrgos; Ryan Grant, Pat MacArthur, Euan Murray; Tim Swinson, Al Kellock (capt); Ryan Wilson, Rob Harley, Josh Strauss.

Replacements: Dougie Hall, Alex Allan, Jon Welsh, Leone Nakarawa, Tyrone Holmes, Niko Matawalu, Richie Vernon, Sean Maitland.

Edinburgh: Jack Cuthbert; Dougie Fife, Matt Scott, Andries Strauss, Tom Brown; Greig Tonks, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne; Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford, John Andress; Anton Bresler, Ben Toolis; Mike Coman (capt), Roddy Grant, David Denton.

Replacements: Neil Cochrane, Rory Sutherland, Willem Nel, Fraser McKenzie, Stuart McInally, Grayson Hart, Tom Heathcote, Phil Burleigh.