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Scotland’s professional rugby teams – ‘not good enough’
(Picture – SRU)

So that’s it for another year. No Scottish interest in Europe beyond the pool stages of the Heineken Cup yet again.

There is no use pussy-footing around on this issue. It simply is not good enough. Scotland’s professional teams have been competing in the Heineken Cup for 18 years. Although Edinburgh have made to the quarter finals twice and once made it to the semis, Glasgow have never gone beyond the pool stages.

Both teams had excuses when the funding for Scottish professional rugby was poor but that is not the case now. Edinburgh and Glasgow have more money and deeper squads than ever before and while they cannot match the big-spending French, they should be more than a match for the English and the Welsh and possibly even the Irish.

So what went wrong?

1) You have to win your home games

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow failed to do this.

For Edinburgh, it was the overwhelmingly depressing 12-23 defeat to Gloucester at Murrayfield on December 8. Having done the hard job and beaten Munster, Edinburgh rolled over against Gloucester and let in two of the softest tries ever conceded by the home team at Murrayfield. Had they won this game, then they would surely have been in the Amlin Cup and still in Europe with a trophy to hunt now.

For Glasgow it was the horrible 7-9 defeat to Cardiff Blues on 13 December. No-one really knew Glasgow could play this badly – but they did and, in doing so, extinguished their Heineken Cup hopes for another year.

2) You have to dominate up front

Glasgow had a chance of toppling the champions from Toulon last Saturday but were destroyed in the setpiece. Four of Jonny Wilkinson’s five successful kicks – which decided the match – came from Glasgow problems at the scrum. Toulon have a massive front five with Andrew Sheridan on the loosehead at his destructive best but, if Glasgow has managed at least parity, they might have come away with a win.

3) You have to pick up bonus points where you can

It is a sobering statistic that Edinburgh managed to get no bonus points this year neither for tries scored nor for finishing within eight points of the winning side. Three or four bonus points could have seen them scrape into second place and into the Amlin Cup. The only other sides not to pick up any bonus points were the two Italian sides. Nuff said.

4) You have to turn your home ground into a fortress

Glasgow have at least come close to this at Scotstoun but Murrayfield is the least intimidatory place for any team to go. Even with Edinburgh pulling in crowds of 7,000 or even 10,000 for European games, the atmosphere is still ghostly. The only time it has ever worked to Edinburgh’s favour was when Toulouse came calling in the quarter final two years ago when more than 30,000 came to watch. The lesson here, surely, is that Edinburgh can attract the crowds if they are successful but, at the moment, that looks some way off.

5) Playing Munster at Thomond Park

It’s still the hardest place to get a result in European rugby. Oh, what Edinburgh would give to have the sort of raucous support Munster enjoyed on Sunday with more than 20,000 red-shorted Irishmen and women cheering them on in a packed Thomond Park. The team responded – how could they not? – with a six-try demolition of Edinburgh. That is what Edinburgh have to aim for. Everything that is needed to win in Europe was in evidence there: winning home games, dominating upfront, picking up bonus points and turning your home ground into a fortress.
Unfortunately, neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow are any nearer uncovering the Scottish form of that success than they have been for years.

Scotland failed to be clinical against Australia
(Picture from Facebook)

Even the most myopic Scottish rugby supporter must have looked at the Ireland v All Blacks game last Sunday and sighed with longing.

Ireland_rugbyIt wasn’t just that Ireland came close to winning (indeed they could, and perhaps should have won), it wasn’t that the Irish scored three tries in the first 19 minutes and had New Zealand on the rack, it was that they played with such passion and controlled ferocity that they all but blew the Kiwis off the park.

Now compare that the dull fare served up by Scotland at Murrayfield 24 hours earlier. Scotland played reasonably well in patches but everything was controlled and organised and not in the least bit ferocious. For the last 20 minutes of the game, Scotland were only six points down. A converted try would have won the game. Indeed, the Australians kept giving Scotland lifelines but failing to knock over routine kicks at all that would put the Wallabies out of sight. Even half the energy, passion and controlled aggression that Ireland showed would have won Scotland the game.

Johnnie Beattie (Pic: Creative Commons)

Johnnie Beattie
(Pic: Creative Commons)

There was a crucial point in the last five minutes. Scotland were still within a converted score of winning, they had a lineout within ten metres of the Aussie line, a catch, drive and maul could have brought a try and what happened? The lineout was lost, the ball was turned over and the game was over. So it is not just a lack of passion and ferocity, it is also a failure to be clinical when needed that was the problem.

The classic example of this failing came just before half time when Johnnie Beattie broke up the centre, passed to Sean Maitland who beat the penultimate defender and passed left to Sean Lamont, who was in the clear with the line in sight. All three passes were a shade offline and the receivers had to check to receive the ball, letting the defence come across, smother Lamont and the chance was lost.

There is an argument to say that had Visser been on that wing – as he should have been had he not been injured – he would have completed the score. He is not only the best finisher in Scottish rugby, he is one of the fastest too. But what that simply exposes is a lack of depth in Scottish rugby. Lamont was there because he was considered the next best option for Visser and while there is no doubt Lamont gives everything he has to the Scotland cause every time he pulls on the shirt, he is not the fastest flyer, best finisher or sharpest winger the team has ever had and would probably struggle to get into any other Six Nations team.

That brings us to the other players used by Scott Johnson this autumn.

Greig Laidlaw (Pic: from Facebook)

Greig Laidlaw
(Pic: from Facebook)

Duncan Taylor of Saracens came in for Matt Scott at 12 and simply reminded us how good Scott is. Taylor had an appalling game against the Springboks. He was easily beaten for one of the South African tries and booted the ball out on the full on one of the only occasions in attack when Scotland had an overlap. Nick de Luca was his usual patchy self at 13, great against Japan and average against the better teams.

There was also no clear consensus to emerge over the crucial position of fly half. Ruaridhe Jackson was reasonably good for the first two games, without dominating while Duncan Weir failed to really excel in the final game against the Wallabies. There is a similar problem at scrum half. Greig Laidlaw’s undoubted rugby nous is valuable but Chris Cusiter gets the ball away quicker, is more urgent in ripping the ball out of the breakdown and fires is away with a harder, flatter pass than his rival and that is crucial in giving the backs the time they need to attack.

It is perhaps a shame that Johnson failed to experiment more, given that there was little more than pride resting on these games. For example, it would have been good to see how the exciting young Mark Bennett from Glasgow responds to international rugby. He would appear to be the best long-term bet for the 13 shirt and could even fill it at the World Cup but, to do that, he needs time to bed in. Greig Tonks can also count himself unlucky not to get a run at 15, at least against Japan.

Six Nations Starts the 1st weekend of February

Six Nations
Starts the 1st weekend of February

But, as Johnson has said, there will be no experimenting when it comes to the Six Nations and, on the basis of the autumn games, we can expect him to pick something along the following lines for that first game against Ireland on Sunday 2nd February 2014 – injuries permitting of course: Grant, Ford, Low (no Euan Murray as the match is on a Sunday), Swinson, Hamilton, Strokosch, Brown (c), Denton, Laidlaw, Jackson, Lamont, Scott, De Luca, Maitland, Hogg.

Johnson does seem wedded to having Kelly Brown as his captain and, as such, playing him at seven. However, it would be good to see Ross Rennie back at seven for Scotland (he starts back for Edinburgh after injury this week). Richie Gray may have recovered enough form to get back into the starting line-up be then – let’s hope so because, although Jim Hamilton adds grunt to the pack, he is still a liability in the loose.

In that case, a better team for the Ireland match may be: Grant, Ford, Low, Gray, Swinson, Harley, Rennie, Denton, Cusiter (c), Weir, Hogg, Scott, Bennett, Maitland, Lamont.

That would give the two young centres the chance to see if they can work up the sort of understanding that could serve Scotland well for years and give a proper balance to the back row.
It does favour Glasgow players but they have shown so much more this year than any others, they deserve the recognition.

The only really depressing downside is the continuing absence of Visser. Just when Scotland got themselves their best left wing in years, he goes out with a broken leg.

With either of these two sides mentioned above (but particularly the first one, which seems depressingly one-paced and lacking in turnover specialists) Scotland may well find themselves desperately in need of his finishing in what will be another tight Six Nations.

Joe Jones ex-pupil of Merchiston Castle School has just completed a successful season playing as openside flanker for the Natal Sharks Under-19 team in South Africa.

The under-19′s team recently made the semi-final of the Currie Cup where they were narrowly beaten by the Golden Lions in Johannesburg.

Based on his performance Joe has been awarded a bursary for The Sharks Academy. The Sharks Academy,a world-class rugby academy is accredited by SA Rugby and backed by a strategic partnership with the Natal Sharks. Joe first attended the Academy as part of a summer camp in July 2011, he was invited to return once he finished school and has been at the academy since February 2013.

Joe has played in the Scotland Under-18′s and is currently in the Under-20 training camp.

In his last year at Merchiston Castle School Joe was awarded the prestigious tackling sword.

Edinburgh Rugby celebrates a win over Treviso
(Picture from Facebook)

by Hamish Macdonell

Niko Matawalu is a match-winner. There is no doubt about that. Glasgow’s run to the play-offs last year would probably not have been achieved without the little Fijian scrum half. But he is also a liability (and I’m not talking here about any allegations about biting or anything like that).

Niko Matawalu  (from Twitter)

Niko Matawalu
(from Twitter)

Glasgow’s 13-6 loss to Munster last Friday was a game they could – and should – have won and one of the main reasons they didn’t win was Matawalu.

The first crucial point came early in the second half when Munster were reduced to 14 men when James Cronin, the Irish prop, was penalised for blatantly killing the ball on his own line. Glasgow were given a penalty right on the Munster try line and the game was there for the taking. Munster were leading by 13-6 at the time and Chris Cusiter, the Glasgow captain decided to go for the scrum. It was a rational enough decision but the sensible move in such a tight game was to go for the posts and take the easy three points. Glasgow came away from that scrum without any points and, indeed, didn’t get any more during the rest of the time that Cronin was off the field or, for that matter, for the rest of that night.

It was a very tight game and on two further occasions Glasgow were given penalties in eminently kickable positions. On both of these occasions Matawalu decided to run rather than take the points. Twice he took the penalties quickly and headed off towards the Munster line and on both occasions he was caught and the ball was lost. That was nine points passed up in a tight game which Munster won by seven. Cusiter’s decision was excusable, Matawalu’s were not.

Matawalu’s decision to run everything works occasionally and, when it does, it looks brilliant. But it is only really useful if Glasgow are chasing the game and need a game-breaking try. On Friday, Glasgow needed points to eat into the Munster lead in what was always going to be a close game.

Glasgow warriors logoBut not all of the blame can be laid at the Fijian’s door. Part must be directed at coach Gregor Townsend and what seemed to be a panicky substitution strategy. He replaced Cusiter, who was doing well leading a solid, attritional game plan, on 55 minutes, and then he virtually emptied the entire Glasgow bench over the following couple of minutes in what appeared a desperate move to change the game plan and alter the pace of the match. There was no need to do that, Glasgow were gaining control and Townsend could have kept that tactic back for the last 15 or ten minutes when he really needed something different.

Friday’s match was comfortably Glasgow’s worst home performance for months and the result was that the Warriors were knocked off the top of the table – and deservedly so.

However, the Glasgow side are heading into a difficult spell. The autumn internationals coming up and Glasgow are set to lose at least a full XV to the national squad. As a result, this is the time for the overseas players at the club to step up – something Matawalu may find it hard to do if, as is possible, he ends up being banned for months by the citing commissioner.

edinburgh rugby logoAs for Edinburgh, Friday night’s game against Treviso was positive – at least in part. Edinburgh won 20-13, which lifted the capital side off the bottom of the table. But it has to be said that Treviso were pretty poor. Not only that but Edinburgh had so much possession, at least in the first half, that they should have had the four-try bonus point in the bag before the changeover. It was to Edinburgh’s discredit that they failed to put any distance between themselves and their Italian opponents and then let Treviso in with an easy try to throw the game into the balance with ten minutes to go.

One great breenge by David Denton set up Willem Nel to barge over and the game was won but it was tighter and more tense than it should have been.

Edinburgh’s cause wasn’t helped by Greig Laidlaw having his worst game for some time. He threw one wayward pass behind fly half Harry Leonard, he tossed another into the hands of a Treviso player that almost led to a try and he knocked on over the try line. Matt Scott was another to underperform. Scott is a great runner but he appears to believe he can break through every time. He would be better advised to pass more often and try to break the line less frequently. If Laidlaw and Scott tick, so do Edinburgh but, with both of them out of sorts, the team suffer too.

Edinburgh's David Denton

Edinburgh’s David Denton

At least Denton appears back to his rampaging best and Greig Tonks has the confidence to run hard from deep and he is confident enough under a high ball that he must be in with at least a chance of starting for Scotland in at least one of this autumn’s internationals. The worst aspect of Friday’s match at Murrayfield, however, was the sight of Tim Visser in agony on the pitch before being stretchered off. His loss will affect Scotland and Edinburgh and, with Stuart Hogg also out for most of November, the national back three – which was looking so good just 12 months ago – is now very shaky indeed.

It seems likely that Scott Johnson won’t pick his number one team for the Japan game on November 9 but will keep his heaviest forwards, at least, back for the Springboks game a week later. His best team, at the moment, would appear to be the following and this should be the one that gets a run out against South Africa, with a whole second string available for the Japan game a week earlier.

    Potential XV to play the Springboks on Nov 17:
    Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Alistair Strokosch,
    Kelly Brown, David Denton, Greig Laidlaw, Max Evans, Ruaridh Jackson, Matt Scott,
    Nick de Luca, Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland.
    Subs: Alistair Dickinson, Pat McArthur, Moray Low, Al Kellogg,
    John Barclay, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Taylor.

    Potential XV to play Japan on Nov 9:
    Alistair Dickinson, Pat McArthur, Moray Low, Al Kellogg, Grant Gilchrist, Rob Harley,
    Blair Cowan, Johnnie Beattie, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Weir, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar,
    Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor, Greig Tonks.
    Subs: Geoff Cross, Scott Lawson, Jon Welsh, Tim Swinson, Kieran Low,
    Henry Pyrgos, Jack Cuthbert.

Tim Visser touches down for Edinburgh

So, Edinburgh’s season has been rescued – at least for the next few weeks. Edinburgh’s 29-23 victory over Munster last weekend means the capital side still have something to play for this season.

edinburgh rugby logoThey went into the game knowing they had done everything possible to put themselves out of contention in the league after less than two months (one win from five and rooted to the bottom of the table) and aware that defeat at home in the Heineken Cup would put them virtually out of Europe too. Edinburgh could easily have been looking at a virtually worthless and barren season by now, half way through October, and it is to their enormous credit that they battled through to get the win against Munster.

The tackling was generally solid and aggressive, the game plan conservative but well executed and some of the players really shone – none more so than Matt Scott at 12, lock Sean Coz in the lineout and scrum half Greig Laidlaw from the tee. But they have to acknowledge they were lucky. Munster really started to turn the screw after half time and, for the third quarter, the match appeared to be heading inexorably towards the men from Ireland.

Edinburgh found it hard to get out of their own half and often could do little more than hoof the ball away then wait in a line for Munster to run at them again. If Tim Visser’s try had been disallowed for foul play in its lead up – and that could easily have happened – Edinburgh may well have lost and all that sense of improvement and having something to play for would have disappeared.

Tackling "solid and aggressive"

Tackling “solid and aggressive”

But Edinburgh won and, in the end, that is all that matters. However they need to back it up. In theory, they could lose away to Perpignan on Sunday and still get through to the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup but, in reality, it would be difficult. Edinburgh know from their experiences two years ago that you need to win all your home games, preferably with a couple of four-try bonus points, and win two of your away games, to stand a realistic chance of topping a group.

Now, if Edinburgh could win away at Perpignan on Sunday, then we really could start to think about another great Heineken Cup run but that is an exceptionally tall order. The French teams play differently at home: just ask Glasgow.

The Warriors had the toughest task of any side in Europe last weekend when they travelled to Toulon, home of the European champions. That Glasgow emerged with a four-try bonus point, despite recording a 51-28 loss, is actually a tremendous result.

Not only are Toulon packed with international superstars but, when they start to get on top on a sunny day at home, as they did on Sunday, they can be irresistible. Some of the back play in that first half was sensational, particularly from Matt Giteau, throwing passes behind his back, flicking the ball away in the tackle and offloading at speed, all of which seemed to fall into the hands of another Toulon player.

Glasgow warriors logoGlasgow were clearly over-awed early on but came back in the second half to play the rugby their fans know they are capable of. Some have criticised Ruaridh Jackson for being subdued in the first half. That is true but he was hardly the only one. In the second, though, he came to life and it was his tremendous break to set up the irrepressible Niko Matawalu for his try.

However, for Glasgow, this weekend is even more important than last. For years, Glasgow have done well in the league but failed dismally in Europe. The pressure is on for them to turn that around this year. Indeed, they know the only way they will get respect is to start making a mark in Europe, and, having lost their first game – albeit to the European champions – they need to win on Sunday against Exeter. For them, the same basic European rule applies: you have to win your home games in Europe if you want to even think of qualifying. That is why Glasgow are under more pressure this weekend than Edinburgh. They need to win at home against a side that looked very impressive in putting six tries past Cardiff last weekend. It can be done and, for Glasgow, it needs to be done. It is that important.

Murrayfield - home of Edinburgh Rugby

Murrayfield – home of Edinburgh Rugby

Before last weekend’s matches, it would have been difficult to find any Edinburgh players who could have got into the Glasgow side on merit. After last weekend’s matches, though, a combined Edinburgh and Glasgow team would be much more balanced. It would still leave the thorny question of how to accommodate Matawalu at his best (which is undoubtedly when he’s playing at nine) and Laidlaw but, for what its worth, here is one suggestion of what a Glasgow/Edinburgh combined team from last weekend would look like:

    Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Willem Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Sean Cox, Richie Vernon,
    Chris Fusaro, Josh Strauss, Greig Laidlaw, Tim Visser, Ruaridh Jackson, Matt Scott,
    Mark Bennett, DTH van Der Merwe, Niko Matawalu.

It wouldn’t be a bad Scottish side either – or it would be as soon as Nel and Strauss get qualified …

Ruaridh Jackson kicks for goal

Why are Glasgow Warriors so good and Edinburgh so bad?
By Hamish Macdonell

THE stats speak for themselves: Glasgow – played four won four, top of the league, and selling out every home game. Edinburgh – played four, won one, bottom of the league, struggling with poor attendances, low morale and plummeting confidence.

Glasgow warriors logoGlasgow’s win on Friday night was impressive, not just because the team won again away from home but in the tries they scored: they were sharp, clinical and well delivered. But the Warriors management know they should have left Italy with a bonus point as well, having scored three tries in the first hour. Not only could they not score the crucial fourth in the final quarter but actually managed to concede two in the process, the first Glasgow have let in all season.

This is actually part of the reason behind Glasgow’s success. The team is built on terrifically tenacious defence. There are other reasons for Glasgow’s success too. Head coach Gregor Townsend has amassed a really competitive squad and he seems to rotate everything, including his choice of kicker, to keep all the players keen and not entirely sure if they are the number one choice in their position or not. But Townsend has done more than that too. Anyone coaching grassroots rugby in Scotland will know of the SRU’s key themes and, apparently, Townsend was behind this too, deciding what the core aims of rugby coaching should be (for instance placement of the ball after the tackle) and moving to get it inculcated right through rugby in Scotland from the minis up.

It is now clear that Townsend has a vision of how modern rugby should be played and Glasgow are doing it, and doing it well. It does involve solid defence but it also involves terrific work at the ruck, both in possession and in opposition.

A classic feature of Glasgow’s play for the last two seasons has been the team’s ability to really contest opposition ruck ball. Often this involves counter rucking, hard and fast, to sweep the opposition back and give them, at best, poor back-foot ball. Glasgow have a good combination of fiery, front-foot forwards, like Josh Strauss and Rob Harley and speedy backs like DTH Van der Merwe and Stuart Hogg. But, if the victory on Friday can be attributed to the contribution of one man, it would be Sean Maitland.

Maitland doesn’t score nearly as many tries as other back three players but he has such fabulous control over the basic skills that he sets up so many. The two he set up on Friday exemplified this.

For the first, he took a terrific line outside the ten channel, not to get the ball from Ruaridh Jackson at fly half but to get the inside ball from Alex Dunbar at 12. His speed took him clear and, with just the full back to beat, many others would have backed themselves to get to the line but not Maitland, he just drew the fullback and put in an inch perfect pass to Byron McGuigan who scored.

For the second, again Maitland found himself through the line but this time he had two defenders in front of him so he put through a delightful grubber – while going at speed – which sat up nicely for McGuigan to score once again.

Maitland is a great addition to Glasgow’s squad and an example of how wisely Glasgow have invested in talent, far better, it must be said, than Edinburgh.

edinburgh rugby logoEdinburgh under Alan Solomons have decided to try to become solid, defensive and, it has to be said, boring. Being boring and winning is one thing but being boring and losing is quite another. Unfortunately, that is where Edinburgh are at the moment. The game plan seems to be: if you have the ball in your own half, kick it away and wait for the opposition to make a mistake. Then, only run it if you are in the opposition 22. Otherwise, rely on South African brute strength over guile. It might work in the long run but it sure isn’t working yet.

There have been times, and Friday’s night’s loss to the Scarlets showed this several times, when Edinburgh could have run the ball from their own 22. Indeed, they may well have had an overlap to exploit and certainly had the players to do it, but they kicked away the ball, possession and the attacking opportunity.

It’s always worth looking at how the best in the world do it. The All Blacks always play heads up rugby, knowing that an overlap in your own 22 can be just as effective as an overlap in your opponent’s 22: if it’s on, they take it. Glasgow have the confidence to do that: Edinburgh do not.

Edinburgh’s lack of options in the back line is becoming more than a concern: it is becoming the beginning of a crisis. Edinburgh’s lack of fly half options is made almost laughable by the embarrassment of riches that Glasgow have at ten and, instead of bringing in more and more bulky South African forwards, perhaps Solomans would be better employed scouring the world for a decent ten, preferably Scottish qualified.

So it really is a tale of two cities. Glasgow sit on top of the league and are playing very well indeed. Edinburgh are at the bottom and deserve to be there. It would so much better for Scottish rugby if both teams were competitive but that seems unlikely to happen soon. Maybe Edinburgh will improve when Matt Scott comes back at 12, Greig Laidlaw comes back at either nine or ten and Tim Visser is back at 11. But none of them will be able to exert the influence they have done in the past unless Edinburgh relax their rigid game plan.

It hasn’t worked so far and, if it doesn’t start working soon, they will have no option but to ditch it and try something else – and imitating Glasgow might not be a bad place to start.

Edinburgh’s David Denton (left), Willem Nel (2nd left) and Ross Ford (2nd right)
fire towards Newport’s Toby Faletau (from the Edinburgh Rugby Facebook Page)

What more does Willem Nel have to do to get a man-of-the-match award? The Edinburgh tighthead virtually won the game against the Dragons on his own on Friday night.

Four times in the first half he destroyed the Dragons scrum so comprehensively that Edinburgh won a penalty as a result and it was his immense shove right at the death that prompted the final penalty for Edinburgh, the one that Harry Leonard chipped over for Edinburgh’s 16-13 win.

The man-of-the-match award actually went to another southern African, number eight David Denton, who was characteristically rumbustious in the loose and charged headlong into the Dragons all night, but it was Nel who was the difference between the teams.

The new scrummaging laws are supposed to have turned the scrums from being a source of penalties to a way of restarting the game cleanly and efficiently. Well, that’s not how Nel and Edinburgh see them. The new laws, which favour technique and suppress the advantage of the hit, are perfect for top-quality scrummagers like Nel. Time and again he – and his superb front-row colleagues Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson – were able to drive their opponents backwards and upwards, totally legally, winning penalty after penalty.

Edinburgh Rugby v Newport Gwent Dragons (from Facebook)

Edinburgh Rugby v Newport Gwent Dragons
(from Facebook)

The referee actually stopped handing Edinburgh penalties in the second half, preferring to watch the Dragons being driven backwards and frantically struggle to release the ball from the base of the scrum without blowing the whistle. That is until the last moment of the match when he had no choice. The Dragons were pushed so comprehensively backwards and upwards in that final scrum that he had to award that final penalty and hand Edinburgh the win.

Nel becomes Scottish qualified in two years, hopefully just before the World Cup and, if he continues this kind of form and if the IRB leave the scrum laws alone for a bit, he could be just what Scotland need to gain parity in a group that contains the scrummaging powerhouses from South Africa.

But if Nel was the cornerstone of this Edinburgh victory then the rest of the pack provided the solid foundations. With Grant Gilchrist and Izaak van der Westhuizen in the second row, Dmitri Basilaia, Denton and Roddy Grant, it was not a small scrum. The strength hardly went down when the subs came on, particularly another huge South African in Wicus Blaauw who came into the front row for Dickinson for that all-important final push.

So if anyone wants any hints as to how Edinburgh are going to play this season, then this is it. They have a South African coach in Alan Solomans who likes to play direct, hard, full-frontal rugby. They have a South African spine through their immense scrum and they might as well play to their strengths, which is what they did on Friday night. It is not pretty. It is not the light, exciting off-loading game that Edinburgh used to excel in. It is based around a big pack that bested the Munster eight in the tight last week and comprehensively did the same to the Dragons this week.

The problem for Edinburgh comes behind the scrum. Tim Visser was back to his poaching best on Friday, scoring with just about the only real chance that came his way and Nikki Walker on the other wing looked eager for action. Greig Tonks at 15 is also looking solid and dangerous.

The back three are fine, the problem is getting the ball to them. Young scrum half Sean Kennedy started at nine on Friday in Greig Laidlaw’s absence. Kennedy has a good pass and looks to be quick on his feet too. However, he is often so cautious about releasing the ball from the base of rucks until he is entirely ready and the players outside him are set up, that the opposition has all the time in the world to align and get ready.

Time and again, Edinburgh would take the ball into contact then there would be a delay while Kennedy waited before releasing the ball. By that time there was no chance of a breakthrough.
Kennedy has to take more risks and provide snappier service for his backs, who, for their part have to be much quicker at preparing to receive the ball.

Edinburgh Rugby v Newport Gwent Dragons (From Facebook)

Edinburgh Rugby v Newport Gwent Dragons
(From Facebook)

As the Lions showed in the summer, the key to attacking play is alignment after the ball goes to ground. Any team that can provide quick ball from the ruck to players waiting in the correct position to receive it will eventually find gaps because the opposition will inevitably get it wrong and slow at some time.

Leonard, playing at ten last night in the absence of Piers Francis also needs to be quicker and take more risks. He was obviously playing to a game plan to kick the ball both high and often and long and often on Friday, but it didn’t always work and Edinburgh came away second best from the kicking duels several times.

It is all very well having a scrum-based, territorial game plan but, when you have finishers of the quality of Walker and Visser, it is crying shame not to use them more in open play.

In the centres, Nick De Luca was his usual maddening self, doing the good things very well and being poor at others, missing a simple pass to Visser on one occasion and getting pinged for a high tackle on another. Dougie Fife, outside him, is not a natural centre, and it showed. He was reasonably competent most of the time but, on the one occasion when he had Visser in space and unmarked outside him, he delayed the pass too long and the chance was gone. Those are the sort of chances Edinburgh have to take and which, for the moment at least, this backline seems incapable of taking. De Luca is so much better at outside centre than at 12, which is where he was on Friday. Many of Visser’s tries in the last two seasons have come from De Luca’s service just inside him and, to get the best out of Visser, De Luca has to play at 13. But that can only happen when Matt Scott is back from injury and playing at 12.

Scott has the ability to become the best centre Scotland have produced for a generation and Edinburgh need his skills desperately at the moment. They also need Laidlaw back at nine and Francis to show he really is a quality ten.

Edinburgh do have a lot of injuries to their first choice backs and it would be wrong to judge them solely on the basis of the makeshift back division they put out on Friday. They secured the win thanks to the grind and grunt of Nel and his mates up front but, to frighten the big teams, they need to get their first choice backs to turn this from being a team of eight players to a team of 15.

Artist’s impression of the new centre
Pictures: Reiach & Hall

Scotland’s £30m National Performance Centre for Sport will be centred at Heriot Watt University on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Offering high level support for football, rugby and volleyball, the centre is designed to help Scotland’s athletes excel at elite level and be in operation by 2016. Other sports too will benefit – they include athletics, badminton, fencing, hockey and shinty. The new facility will be financed in part by £25m from the Scottish Government and a further £2.5m from each of Heriot-Watt University and the City of Edinburgh Council.

Artist's impression of the centre's layout

Artist’s impression of the centre’s layout

The centre will have a substantial range of facilities. They include a full-sized indoor football pitch with seating for 500 as well as a full sized grass pitch, again with seating for 500. There will be two goalkeeper training areas with floodlights, two grass rugby pitches, five grass football pitches, three outdoor tennis courts and a nine-court sports hall. The design builds on he existing facilities at the University’s centre for sport and exercise but also incorporates a large fitness suite, along with areas for strength and conditioning, hydrotherapy and treatment. The center will also provide office accommodation for sports governing bodies.

One of the main features in Reiach & Hall design is the centre’s roof. Inspired by the angle and trajectory of one of the greatest goals in football history, it follows the flight of a strike by Brazil’s Roberto Carlos against France in 1997. The complex has been developed “around the athlete”, providing facilities and services aimed at creating a positive impact on the preparation and development of athletes, coaches and volunteers.

Professor Steve Chapman,  Principal of Heriot-Watt University

Professor Steve Chapman,
Principal of Heriot-Watt University

Principal and vice-chancellor Prof Steve Chapman said: “This is tremendous news for the bid team and, I believe, for the future of performance sport in Scotland. We have the go-ahead to create a world class sporting facility, combining the expertise we already have at Heriot-Watt with a tremendous location, design and setting which have proved a winning formula and will continue to do so for Scotland’s up and coming sports men and women.”

Describing the decision as “absolutely fantastic news for Edinburgh”, Cllr Richard Lewis, the Council’s Sport convener, added that “Heriot-Watt University and the capital will provide an excellent home to the next generation of top athletes and those involved in helping them achieve their aims. Our bid enjoyed great support from the community and local sport groups will also be able to take advantage of this world-class facility on their doorstep. I’m really looking forward to working with Heriot-Watt as they develop their plans in detail ready for future Olympians and cup-winners in 2016.”

The site’s excellent transport links was one of the key factors which influenced the decision – they provide easy access to the city, Edinburgh Airport and the wider surrounding area. The Edinburgh bid also enjoyed widerspread support from top sporting celebrities including Olympians Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Steve Redgrave, rugby legend Gavin Hastings, footballer Michael Stewart and Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. Other submissions had been entered by Dundee City Council and a partnership between the University of Stirling and Stirling Council.

Chris Cusiter meets Children from Stewart’s Melville School

The penultimate round of the HSBC Sevens World Series takes place at Glasgow’s Scotstoun Stadium on the 4th and 5th May 2013 and in the build-up to the event rugby fans in Edinburgh shared in the excitement when they caught a glimpse of the coveted Series trophy in their local HSBC branch as it tours round Scotland. With anticipation building for the Emirates Airline Glasgow Sevens next month, Scottish player, Chris Cusiter accompanied the Series trophy to the Edinburgh branch to meet staff and budding young rugby fans.

Chris Cusiter with the  HSBC Sevens World Series Trophy

Chris Cusiter with the
HSBC Sevens World Series Trophy

Chris Cusiter described the visits as fantastic. “I am a big fan of rugby sevens,” he said, “and have followed the HSBC Sevens World Series so far and it has proved to be an exciting season so I am honoured to be able to accompany this highly sought after trophy across Scotland in the build-up to the Glasgow Sevens.

“I’ve really enjoyed chatting to the young Scottish rugby fans about sevens and seeing them get excited about the Glasgow tournament next week. I hope all my fellow Scots get behind the Scotland Sevens team in Glasgow, which is a crucial tournament for the side in the overall HSBC Sevens World Series standings.”

Interim CEO for HSBC in Scotland, Doug Baikie, added that the bank had “a long-standing investment in rugby around the world from the pinnacle of the British & Irish Lions Tour and the HSBC Sevens World Series to the thousands of children who are introduced to rugby for the first time through HSBC’s numerous community rugby programmes. We are delighted to welcome the Series Trophy to the Edinburgh branch today as the Scottish leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series draws closer. It was great to see so many customers and fans turn out to have their picture taken with the trophy and Scottish rugby legend Gavin Hastings.”

Mark Robertson and  Chris Cusiter

Mark Robertson and
Chris Cusiter

The HSBC Sevens World Series is the pinnacle of international sevens rugby and a globally recognised sporting event featuring nine tournaments around the world. The Emirates Airline Glasgow Sevens will be crucial this season in deciding which of the current teams will need to re-qualify as core teams next season. Scotland are currently joint 12th with the USA in the Series standings and are close to the danger zone.

Following Glasgow will be the final round of the Series, the Marriott London Sevens on the 11th-12th May, where the core teams ranked 13th, 14th and 15th after Glasgow, will play off for three available core team places next season, a scenario every core team wishes to avoid.

The HSBC Sevens World Series trophy tour is visiting four of Scotland’s major cities this week, taking in Glasgow, Dumfries, Edinburgh and Dundee.
For more information on the HSBC Sevens World Series visit www.irbsevens.com or follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/irbsevens.

Stuart Hogg — Picture courtesy of SRU

Former England international and rugby writer Stuart Barnes reckons only three Scots should make the Lions party to Australia this year: lock Richie Gray, scrum half Greig Laidlaw and fullback Stuart Hogg. Former England number eight Lawrence Dallaglio also thinks only three Scots will tour, but his picks are: Gray, tighthead Euan Murray and winger Sean Maitland. Meanwhile Sunday Times sports writer Stephen Jones believes four Scots should go down under: number eight Johnnie Beattie, Gray, Maitland and Laidlaw.

Such a poor representation on a united British Isles and Ireland squad would be pretty hard on a team finishing third in the Six Nations, particularly with Ireland – who finished just off the bottom – boasting many more Lions, according to those experts.

So who’s right and what can Scotland expect?

Scotland have been poorly represented on the last few Lions tours and, in many ways, this was right. Scotland seemed to finish bottom, or next to bottom, of the Six Nations in most years of the last decade so couldn’t hope to get many players on a Lions tour. lions-badgeBut this year there has been much needed improvement. The result should be a Lions representation of five, six or even seven Scots. If ten or so Irish players get the nod and there are only a few Scots then that will be a clear – and somewhat unfair – reward for past ability rather than current form.

The tour party will be, rightly, dominated by the Welsh, with the English – who had just as many wins this year as the Welsh – also having decent number in the party.

As for the Scots, there should be five going: Gray, fellow lock Jim Hamilton and flanker Kelly Brown from the forwards with Laidlaw and Hogg from the backs. None of the experts mentioned Hamilton but his lineout work has been immense all championship, he pushes his not considerable weight in the scrums and he has made an awful nuisance himself in the loose too. If there was an award for the most improved Scottish player, he would get it and acts as a good counter balance to the new crop of athletic, pacey locks like Gray and Joe Launchbury.

Laidlaw has matured greatly since playing fly half for a season and is now the best tactical scrum half in the Six Nations. He does not have much of a break and his defending sometimes lets himself down but, as a kicking, organising and leading scrum half, there are none better – as his performance against France showed (he can also kick accurately from the tee and cover fly half as well).

Brown has all the makings of a dirt-track, mid-week leader: a no-nonsense player who does all the hard graft time and again and then again. He faces tough competition to get into the Lions back row squad but should travel, if only for his astonishing tackle and turnover rate this season. If these five do go then several others could count themselves very unlucky: the entire front row, for example.

Murray and Ford have been Lions before and both could edge out their British and Irish counterparts but may just miss out.

Beattie is the fastest and best ball-playing number eight in the championship but, with only two number eights set to travel, he has a job displacing one of Toby Faletau and Tom Wood (with Ben Morgan waiting off stage).

Matt Scott is rapidly making the Scotland 12 shirt his own and his break and set-up for Tim Visser’s try against France showed what a classy centre he is with the ball. But he was made to look defensively naïve against Ireland and, with Manu Tulaigi, Jamie Roberts, Brad Barritt and Jonathan Davies all vying to keep Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy from travelling, he is unlikely to get on the plane.

Scotland’s back three have been excellent all season and Maitland may just squeeze on to the plane, but he may be kept out if Hogg is seen as a utility back who can cover the wings as well as fullback. Visser is undoubtedly one of the best finishers in world rugby but his defence is still a work in progress and although the left wing is not as competitive as other positions on tour, he may not make it this time.

So my best guess for the tour party – based entirely on the Six Nations, not on those yet to recover from injury and players who didn’t feature – is as follows:

1. Cian Healey and Gethin Jenkins.
2. Richard Hibbard and Rory Best.
3. Adam Jones and Dan Cole.
4. Joe Launchbury and Richie Gray.
5. Alan Wyn Jones and Jim Hamilton.
6. Justin Tipuric and Chris Robshaw.
7. Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien.
8. Toby Faletau and Tom Wood.
9. Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs.
10. Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell.
11. George North and Stuart Hogg.
12. Jamie Roberts and Brad Barritt.
13. Manu Talaigi and Jonathan Davies
14. Alex Cuthbert and Simon Zebo.
15. Leigh Halfpenny and Rob Kearney.
Others: Matt Stevens, Tom Youngs, Kelly Brown, Greig Laidlaw and Alex Goode.

Representation: Wales – 13, England – 11, Ireland – 6, Scotland 5.

The captaincy should be between Robshaw and Warburton, with Robshaw getting the nod (as long as he plays at six to accommodate Warburton).