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David Blair

Murrayfield <em>Picture: Stanley Howe</em>

Murrayfield Picture: Stanley Howe

So farewell then, Gordon McKie, chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, the latest casualty of Scottish rugby’s inability to make a success of the professional game.

McKie was brought in to the SRU in 2005 at a time of absolute crisis. It is difficult to underestimate just how bad the governance of the game was at that time, but Ian McGeechan gives some indication of the scale of the problems in his autobiography when he suggests that the international board was worried, seriously worried, that the SRU might go under, so deep were the financial holes at Murrayfield.

An astute financial manager, McKie was brought in – on the strong advice of bankers HBoS – to sort out the SRU’s finances: and he did so.

The debt was around £20 million at that stage and heading further and further into the red. McKie stabilised the budget, then brought the debt down to its current level where it bobbles around an apparently manageable £15 million.

So let’s be clear, McKie did what he had been brought in to do: he saved Scottish rugby or, rather, he saved the governance structures, the organisation of the SRU and the national stadium.

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But it has slowly dawned on all those involved in the game that McKie hasn’t managed to save the game itself. Despite the odd highlight – Edinburgh’s Magners League second place two years ago being one – Scotland’s two professional teams are still languishing near the bottom of the league and have failed, pretty much universally, to make any impression in Europe.

The national team, despite promising much, recorded just one win in this year’s Six Nations – and that was over Italy at home – the same number of victories it recorded the year before.

Playing numbers are up, particularly among the young. The schools and youth competitions are successful, the national (largely amateur) leagues seem to have settled down well – but where it matters, in the shop window of Scottish rugby, the story is depressingly familiar.

Crowds for Edinburgh and Glasgow games are stubbornly low, and the national team record the occasional success but generally struggle to compete with teams like Wales, Ireland and England.

This appears to be what has, at last, caused McKie’s downfall. Everybody in the game was grateful that he rescued the organisation behind the sport when he did, but they all want – need – to see more success on the pitch to rival the stability and financial competence that is now a part of the fabric off the pitch.

But read some of the strings of comments about McKie’s resignation or the blogs or the tweets and you will detect a fear that those who got the game into such a mess six and seven years ago may return to wreak the same damage all over again.

Back in 2005, when the SRU was in turmoil, I heard a report – which I have never been able to verify absolutely, but it did come from a very reputable source – of one “blazer”, and a very senior “blazer” at that, who was asked about the prospect of putting more rock concerts on at Murrayfield to raise some much-needed cash.

“Oh no,” he was reported to have said. “We don’t want any of that sort of thing at Murrayfield.”

If that was indeed the attitude among some then, thankfully McKie has turned that around: witness Bon Jovi and Kings of Leon playing at the stadium later this year (if only there were more…).

But there is a fear that those who know about rugby don’t know about money, and those who know about money don’t understand rugby.

That is why the appointment of a replacement for McKie is so important. The SRU has the chance to find that person – somebody who has, say, McKie’s financial acumen and Andy Irvine’s rugby brain, someone who knows how the union is going to thrive off the pitch but who also understands instinctively what it needs to thrive on the pitch too.

The name of John Steele has already been mentioned. A former London Scottish coach, Steele was fired at the end of last week from the chief executive’s role at Twickenham.

He would undoubtedly find Murrayfield a step down from Twickenham, he would have less to work with and the problems are certainly greater – but, given the path that Andy Robinson has pioneered (from RFU reject to Scottish Rugby saviour) then maybe Steele wouldn’t be too bad a choice.

Whoever gets the job, though, has to loosen the purse strings just a little. Edinburgh and Glasgow need greater resources. They need to be able to compete, regularly, against their Irish and Welsh counterparts. If they do, the crowds will build – but that takes money, money to hold on to existing stars and money to import some battle-hardened veterans from the southern hemisphere.

Just take Edinburgh’s Heineken Cup match at Murrayfield last year against Northampton as an example. Edinburgh played some exquisite rugby but were ultimately blown away by a Northampton pack based on the biggest, meanest southern hemisphere props the club could buy in – and Northampton went on to the final.

The new SRU chief executive needs to build bridges (financial ones if need be) with London Scottish. As a club in the English second tier competition, London Scottish will get £350,000 this year – but only if 14 of their match-day 22 are English qualified. The SRU should trump that and give £400,000 to London Scottish if 14 of their match day 22 are Scottish qualified. That would give Scottish players vital exposure to a league which is close to, if not at times better than, the Celtic League.

They should also use London Scottish to give game time to under-played Scottish hopefuls. Look at what’s going to happen at Glasgow this year? The Warriors have three of the country’s top young fly-halves on their books.

Ruaridh Jackson is going to the World Cup, so Duncan Weir will get game time, but probably only until Jackson comes back. And, as for Scott Wight, the successful number ten brought in from Melrose, all he can expect is the occasional appearance from the subs’ bench, deputising for one of the two in front of him.

Wouldn’t it be better to farm Wight out to London Scottish, where he could get proper game time at a standard probably just as high as the Celtic League?

And if the two pro teams are under the SRU’s control, as the SRU maintain, then what the hell happened to allow Glasgow to have the three best young fly-halves in Scotland while Edinburgh have none?

That is not a criticism directed at the SRU from Edinburgh’s point of view, but from Scottish rugby’s. Only one of those three will get regular game time, the other two will suffer. Meanwhile, over at Edinburgh, David Blair retired – understandably – his brother Alex was forced out – inexplicably – leaving the capital club with one fly-half recovering from long-term injury (Phil Godman) and another (Greig Laidlaw) deputising in that position when he is really a scrum-half.

If the SRU really controls the two pro teams, then Scotland’s two best fly-halves should be the number one tens at the two clubs, Jackson at one and Weir at the other, and playing week in, week out. Both should have able deputies in Wight at one and Alex Blair at the other, and any other fly-halves should be sent south to London Scottish when there is a surplus to requirements north of the border.

But to take these issues by the scruff of the neck needs a chief executive who understands rugby and understands to need to interfere, if that is for the good of the game, the players and the fans.

McKie did many things well, but this wasn’t one of them. If Scottish rugby is to make a go of the professional game, at last, then this is one quality his successor will have to have.

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Tim Visser, with Chris Paterson and Alex Grove

Tim Visser, with Chris Paterson and Alex Grove

Edinburgh’s Magners League match against Italian side Aironi on Friday night was, in league terms, a dead rubber. In a league without relegation, a contest between the bottom team and the team just four places above it is pretty well meaningless.

As a result, only 1,500 people turned up at Murrayfield – but those who did make the effort saw Edinburgh recapture the sort of form they showed to dispose of the Ospreys in their last home match. They played in a way that, had they done so earlier in the season, would surely have seen them compete for a playoff spot.

Tim Visser’s first-half try was worth the entry fee on its own. The big Dutch winger took his opposite number on the outside, then beat two more defenders with a sidestep on the inside. In doing so, he scored his 13th try of the season – a Magners League record.

Visser was the league’s top scorer last year with ten tries and, although there are four more games this season than last, his 13 tries so far (with two more games to go) show that he is, without doubt, the best finisher in the league.

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Visser also pulled off three try-saving tackles, keeping the Italians out of the game when they could have crept back in contention. Visser is worth as much to the capital side as Todd Blackadder was a few years ago: it is just a shame he has to wait so long for his residency qualifications to enable him to play for Scotland.

However, as far as the man-of-the-match award was concerned, Visser was eclipsed by David Denton, the 21-year-old Edinburgh number eight.

Denton was immense. Time and again he took the ball into contact against a heavyweight and experienced Italian pack and each time he made ground, often considerable ground. He was big and powerful and did what sides need their number eights to do – take the ball up the middle of the park in a no-nonsense, aggressive way.

It was gratifying to see a young Scottish player of such raw power and drive – but, again, Denton isn’t actually Scottish. Born in Zimbabwe and schooled in South Africa, he qualifies to play for Scotland through his mother and already looks a very promising prospect.

Nick de Luca was another to shine on Friday night. For once, he managed to combine the silky touches and sidesteps Edinburgh fans know he is capable of with a previously unheralded aggression. De Luca has long been a player who has flattered to deceive. He certainly possesses all the skills to become an international centre, but has never really made the transition from good club player to Scotland star.

He performance on Friday, though, when he looked hungrier for the ball than for years, suggests that something has clicked. Maybe his try for Scotland against Italy has given him the appetite for more, maybe the return of Graeme Morrison for Glasgow has focused his mind – or maybe Nick Scrivener, the Edinburgh coach, just gave him a kick up the backside. Whatever it was, it seems to have worked and De Luca was excellent against Aironi.

A few more performances like that and he will play himself into Andy Robinson’s starting XV for the world cup.

However, for all the encouraging signs from these players, there was also enough to worry Edinburgh fans ahead of next season. The first try was scored by Fraser Mackenzie, a lock playing at flanker. He has been Edinburgh’s most improved player this season but he won’t be at Murrayfield next year. He has signed for Sale Sharks instead.

Scott MacLeod was the pick of the locks. His lineout work was excellent, as was his performance in the loose. He won’t be in Edinburgh next season either, having decided to pursue his career in Japan.

Greig Laidlaw again played well at fly-half, but his departure to the sin bin in the first half revealed an acute lack of depth there. Indeed, Edinburgh must be the only professional side in the world at the moment to routinely go into full-on league games without a recognised fly-half in their squad.

Laidlaw is a scrum-half deputising as a fly-half and, although he is doing well, he is having to learn on the job. Phil Godman has been out all season. David Blair has all but retired from top-flight rugby, Alex Blair has been injured for much of the season, Chris Paterson hasn’t really had a run of games at ten since his Gala days and Rory Hutton – the only other potential fly-half to play for Edinburgh in the last couple of years – was let go at the end of last season.

As a result, when Laidlaw was in the bin last week, winger Simon Webster had to deputise as first receiver. Webster is a out-and-out winger and in no way is he a fly-half.

It does seem incredible that Edinburgh can make do with such a patched-up approach, but it perhaps an indication of the team’s hopeless position in the league, without a chance of making the playoffs, and the lack of relegation, that has brought this about.

Those very same factors inevitably conspired to push the attendance down to a paltry 1,565 on Friday, which is a shame. There was really good rugby on offer, the crowd saw four good tries and an open, fast game packed with incident.

How different it would be had Edinburgh actually being pushing for a playoff spot. A few more wins earlier in the season and they could have been up there with the Irish provinces. Friday night’s crowd would have been bigger, the team would have been on a roll and everything would have looked brighter.

One can only hope Edinburgh learn from this season and don’t make the same mistakes next year.

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Glasgow's Max Evans

Glasgow's Max Evans

Scotland coach Andy Robinson must look forward to these inter-city derby matches with a mixture of fear and expectation. They are the nearest that Scottish rugby gets to an old-fashioned Scotland trial game and the timing is perfect, just a month away from the Six Nations.

But as well as providing an opportunity for fringe players to show their worth, such full-on encounters can lead to injuries to key players with others wilting under the pressure.

So it proved over the course of the two Edinburgh-Glasgow games, the last of which was won by Edinburgh 28-17 at Murrayfield last night. Robinson had already watched his first choice inside centre, Graeme Morrison, get stretchered off at Firhill last night and two other players, Scott MacLeod and Chris Fusaro banned for a week for fighting.

As a result, he could have been forgiven for watching last night’s game through his fingers but, while there were no further serious injuries, the match did raise serious questions about the quality of some of his key players and their ability to cope under pressure.

It is now depressingly clear that the two best wingers in Scottish rugby are not Scots. Dutchman Tim Visser for Edinburgh and Canadian DTH van der Merwe for Glasgow are the stand-out wingers in the Scottish game. Neither are qualified to play for Scotland – yet.

Visser made Edinburgh’s first try, coming off his left wing to take a pop pass from David Blair and crash through two defenders in a mirror-image of his successful move against Castres. He was held up short of the line but managed to flip the ball up to number eight Netani Talei who scored next to the posts.

Visser scored the second Edinburgh try himself, brushing off Glasgow number nine Colin Gregor to score in the left corner a few minutes later. That gave Visser the man-of-the-match award, again, and took his season’s total to ten tries – the same as he managed in the whole of last season when he was the Magners League’s top scorer.

As for van der Merwe, he was a threat every time he got the ball and although Lee Jones, his opposite number, did a reasonable job of keeping him in check, his speed off the mark, his ability to chip ahead and his positional awareness made him the most dangerous back in the Glasgow line up.

With Talei, a Fijian, the best number eight on show last night, also not available for Scotland, this only adds to the selection problems facing Robinson.

Much was expected of Ruaridh Jackson, the Glasgow fly half, who is expected to understudy Dan Parks through the Six Nations. If anything happens to Parks, then Scotland look likely to go with Jackson although, on the basis of last night’s game, that could lead to serious problems.

Jackson had a poor game. He dropped one high ball, gifting an attacking scrum to Edinburgh and while he nailed two early long-range penalties, he then missed with three other, much easier, pots at goal, one right in front of the posts. If he had kicked those, Glasgow would have been ahead going into the last ten minutes, would not have needed to chase the game and might well have won it.

As it was, Glasgow coach Sean Lineen took Jackson off early in the second half and replaced him with Colin Gregor, the Glasgow scrum half, and the Warriors were none the worse for it.

It is a shame for Scotland and Glasgow that Duncan Weir, the young pretender to the Glasgow fly half role, is out injured, because he could have really shone in last night’s game and could have propelled himself up the Scotland pecking order.

There were some successes, though. Jim Thompson, the Edinburgh full-back, carried on from his excellent form at Firhill last week to defend well, clear well and poach the last try, intercepting a Gregor pass inside his own 22 and sprinting the length of the pitch to score under the posts. It was a risky move, given that Glasgow had strung together 15 phases and were threatening to score. Going for the interception could have lead to a Glasgow try and the loss of the game but Thompson read it well and closed out the game for Edinburgh.

Max Evans, the Glasgow outside centre, was also a class act and regularly managed to step around tackles with an ease that few others in Scotland can manage. Despite his unlucky sinbinning, John Barclay, the Glasgow openside, outshone Ross Rennie, his Edinburgh counterpart.

And while Edinburgh had the clear edge in the front rows, with Alan Jacobsen, Ross Ford and Geoff Cross bettering their Glasgow opponents, the Glasgow second rows of Richie Gray and Al Kellogg were clearly best on show.

It was not so good for another Scotland hopeful, Greig Laidlaw. He has aspirations on the Scotland scrum half shirt but, on last night’s evidence, he was the third best scrum half out there, bested by Mike Blair, when he came on to replace him and by Gregor, the Glasgow nine, before he was moved to the fly-half slot.

Indeed, Gregor was a livewire threat the whole game, wherever he played. He has long suffered from being a jack-of-all-trades but he is now a good scrum half and a good fly half. Robinson could do worse than look to Gregor to fill at least a place on the subs bench when Scotland start their Six Nations campaign in Paris in a few weeks time.

In the end, Glasgow took the 1872 Cup by one point (47 to 46) which shows, in one sense, how little there is between these teams. Glasgow, though, can think themselves unlucky not to have won both. They were pushing hardest at the end of last night’s game and Edinburgh were doing all they could to hang on before stealing it with that late interception try.

Overall then, Glasgow look sharper, keener and more aggressive and, crucially, appear to have the ability to up a gear when they need to, to try to close out tight games.

Much of the credit for that must go to Lineen while questions still persist about Edinburgh coach Rob Moffat’s ability to get the best out of his players.

The team of the two games, therefore, would look something like this: Jacobson, Ford, Cross, Gray, Kellogg, Harley, Barclay, Talei, Gregor, D Blair, Houston, Evans, Visser, van der Merwe, Thompson.

Ruaridh Jackson kicks for goal

Ruaridh Jackson kicks for goal

Glasgow won the first of Scottish rugby’s festive season derby games last night, trouncing Edinburgh by 30-18 at a cold but dry Firhill.

The game looked like it could go either way as it entered the final quarter with Edinburgh leading 18-16. But while Glasgow had the ability to up a gear in that final twenty, Edinburgh lost shape, focus, a player to the sinbin, concentration, confidence and, ultimately, the match itself.

Glasgow scored two tries in that final quarter to add to the one they scored in the first half and they thoroughly deserved the victory. The Warriors showed more hunger for the ball, more intensity in contact and they ran sharper with better lines than their Edinburgh counterparts.

If there were two crucial moments when Edinburgh lost the game, the first came when they dropped off a series of tackles on Glasgow number six Rob Harley allowing the flanker to gallop up the left wing before releasing winger DTH van der Merwe for a straight 40-yard sprint to the line.

Edinburgh fell off their tackles again in the final 20 minutes as the other Glasgow winger, Hefin O’Hare weaved his way through the flimsy Edinburgh defence to score next to the posts.

Glasgow’s third and final try was created and finished by the excellent Max Evans. The Glasgow outside centre took the ball on the Edinburgh 22-yard line, shaped to pass then accelerated, came off his left foot twice and dived under the posts untouched by an Edinburgh hand.

That try owed everything to Evans’s skill and would have probably been scored against most Magners League defences so Edinburgh can’t really blame themselves for that one – unlike the other two.

However, the fact that all of Edinburgh’s points came from the boot of fly-half David Blair while Glasgow scored three good tries, all through the backs, reveals a lot about how this game went – even though it was Edinburgh who led with 20 minutes to go.

Edinburgh didn’t score a try and only looked like doing so on a rare couple of occasions when they got close to the Glasgow line but couldn’t find a way through.

Even the normally excellent Tim Visser couldn’t pierce the feisty Glasgow defence where the first-up tackling was ferocious and the contact area something of a war zone.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of Edinburgh player who outplayed their Glasgow opponent. Ross Rennie, at seven, was probably better than John Barclay and prop Alan Jacobsen was his usual difficult self in the loose but, behind the scrum, only centre John Houston and full-back Jim Thompson came close to their Glasgow counterparts.

Blair, at fly-half, was competent, solid, kicked all his goals and released his backs relatively effectively but his kicking from hand was poor – not for the first time. He either missed touch or banged the ball over the touchline just 20 yards from where he was and his garryowens were generally woeful.

In contrast, Glasgow ten Ruaridh Jackson was sharper with the ball in hand and much more precise when kicking for possession.

And, when he couldn’t do it, Glasgow lock Al Kellock showed he could put in a touch-finding grubber as good as any fly-half. Kellock was immense and showed why he is turning into such a good captain, time and again taking the time to keep his players focused and leading by example.

Colin Gregor is getting almost as good as any of the top scrum halves in Scotland while, in Richie Gray at lock, Richie Vernon and number eight, Harley at six and Moray Low and John Welsh in the front row, Glasgow have the makings of a really combative and effective pack.

Edinburgh coach Rob Moffat admitted before this game that Edinburgh had not approached last year’s derby games with Glasgow with enough intensity. They tried to rectify that last night, coming out strongly at the start of both halves but they couldn’t sustain it throughout.

Glasgow, meanwhile, played with the required energy and aggression throughout and that was enough to see them emerge as the clear winners. The extra edge in this game was demonstrated by the cards handed out, one yellow to Glasgow’s Gray and another yellow to Edinburgh hooker Ross Ford. There were also two reds, shown by the referee right at the end after Edinburgh lock Scott MacLeod and Glasgow replacement flanker Chris Fusaro came to blows.

The Ford sinbinning, though, was the crucial one. Edinburgh had conspicuously failed to take advantage when Gray was in the bin – indeed the Edinburgh pack managed to contrive to lose a scrum with an extra man advantage during that time.

But when Ford went off, Glasgow sensed the opportunity to win the game while Edinburgh seemed to implode. The Edinburgh players seemed to believe they would struggle down to 14 men and so it turned out.

The one downside for Glasgow was the loss to injury of centre Graeme Morrison. He went down in the first half and may well be out for several weeks with what may be cruciate ligament damage. But, given how well his colleagues played after his departure, Sean Lineen, the Glasgow coach, shouldn’t be too worried. Glasgow head into the Murrayfield leg knowing they can do the double over Edinburgh for the second successive season if they keep playing like they did last night.

For Edinburgh, however, there is the consolation that they always play better at Murrayfield than away from home and they will have the opportunity to play their wider, more fluid game at home – something that the narrow confines of Firhill denied them the chance to do last night.

Edinburgh have to come back and win the 2 January game if they are to get anything meaningful from this season. It would be good to see Simon Webster return to the starting lineup for that one. He should really replace the brave but inexperienced Lee Jones while Nick de Luca’s guile in midfield is surely also required by Edinburgh.

One sour note for the organisers too, came from the shambolic way the Firhill crowd was handled. For some reason, the one goal-line stand at the Glasgow ground was kept empty while most of the spectators were herded into the main Jackie Husband stand. Unfortunately, it appeared as if some of those with any-game vouchers were able to sit anywhere while everyone else was given an allocated seat. The result was confusion and anger around the ground, with some spectators having to wait 25 minutes into the game before they could find somewhere to sit.

Given that last year’s game drew a crowd of nearly 9,000 and, for that one, the end stand was opened for spectators, this year’s organisation – or an apparent lack of it – caused problems for the 7,000-plus crowd. With a capacity of 67,000, though, at least there won’t be a problem in finding a spare seat at Murrayfield for the return leg next week.

Tim Visser

Tim Visser

IT was a shame that those diehard Edinburgh fans who have watched more than their fair share of European defeats over the years should miss this remarkable Heineken Cup victory.

Edinburgh came from behind to beat Castres 24-22 this afternoon with an astonishingly opportunist try three minutes from full time when they deserved to have been beaten yet again.

The match was played behind closed doors with all fans locked out for health and safety reasons because there was so much snow around the ground.

That was a great pity because, had they been allowed in, they would have seen three terrific Edinburgh tries. The first was scored by the irrepressible Tim Visser – his ninth of the season.

The big Dutch winger picked up the ball just inside the Castres half after just seven minutes and powered through five French defenders on his way to the try line. It was an example of power and pace combining that Edinburgh fans have grown to enjoy over the past season and a half.

But Visser wasn’t finished there. After 21 minutes, Visser came in off his wing in a pre-planned move and took the ball in the centre. His angle of run, his strength and his speed took him past three defenders and he made 40 metres before being dragged down just short of the line when he deserved to score.

Visser had the presence of mind to flip to ball up where it was collected by winger Lee Jones who dotted down in the corner to score.

Edinburgh full-back Chris Paterson converted both – although he also missed with two long range penalties in the first half – to give Edinburgh 14 points at the break.

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Castres had scored 10 points by that stage, a penalty after just three minutes converted by Vincent Inigo and a try on 13 minutes scored by lock Rodrigo Ortego converted by centre Seremaia Baikeinuku.

Edinburgh were slightly fortunate to be ahead at the break because they were losing the battle up front to the French forwards.

Ortego’s try came after a series of bullocking drives by the Castres pack and Edinburgh were lucky not to have conceded further scores such was the French dominance in the setpiece.

The Edinburgh backs, though, were playing much better than their opponents and it looked like being a contest between the lightness and speed of the home team against the strength and weight of their opponents.

Unfortunately for Edinburgh, it was Castres who came out the stronger in the second half and started to add some backline flair to their forward effort.

Despite an early David Blair penalty to make the score 17-10 soon after half-time, the second half resulted was characterised by a series of desperate rearguard efforts by the Scots who were camped on their own line for much of the third quarter.

Penalty after penalty went to the French team and they kept scrimmaging instead of kicking the points. The overwhelming pressure finally told in the 63rd minute when Edinburgh scrum half Greig Laidlaw was sinbinned for persistent infringing and then, a minute later, Castres were awarded a penalty try after the Edinburgh scrum disintegrated yet again in front of the home posts.

Castres converted and suddenly it was 17-17 and Edinburgh were down to 14 men.

Castres sensed victory and threw everything at the Edinburgh defence. It wasn’t long before Castres substitute Sebastien Tillous Borde went over in the corner. The conversion was missed but the French team had a 17-22 lead with just ten minutes left.

Edinburgh hung on until Laidlaw returned and then managed to make into the Castres half at last.

But it wasn’t until the game entered the final three minutes that wing Simon Webster, making his second substitute’s appearance since recovering from a long term injury, made the telling contribution which was to decide this match.

He picked up the ball at outside half just inside the Castre half and kicked it deep. The covering Castres player appeared to have enough time to control it as Webster raced through in pursuit but the bounce of the ball swung it away from the Castres player at the last moment, Webster pounced on it and scored from a metre out.

Crucially, the score was just to the left of the posts giving Blair a simple conversion to give Edinburgh a 24-22 lead which they held on to for the final three minutes to win this engrossing match.

Edinburgh’s Heineken Cup season is over, the result of defeats in the club’s first three games but this showed the team know how to win tight matches – something which they may well need during the Festive Season double header with Glasgow, two matches which could determine whether Edinburgh are actually going to challenge for the Magners League or finish well off the pace like last year.

Given that context, this wasn’t a bad time to win a tough European encounter. It was just a shame Edinburgh’s fans didn’t get to see it.

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Netani Talei

Netani Talei

Scottish rugby supporters cannot really afford to be too picky. It is true that a win is a win is a win and this weekend’s Magners League games resulted in two Scottish wins. Edinburgh beat Treviso 21-9 at Murrayfield and Glasgow beat Aironi 33-8 at Firhill.

But the Edinburgh game, in particular, left supporters feeling let down. This was a home game against an Italian side new to the Magners League which had been shorn of most of its best players who were being rested ahead of the Italian national side’s match against the Pumas next week.

This was not just a game Edinburgh should have won, and won easily, it was a game they should have won with a four-try bonus point.

The problem was, not only did Edinburgh never really look like going for the four-try bonus point but they struggled so much they never really looked like scoring tries at all.

Edinburgh did actually score two tries. However, both were against the run of play. The first came after centre John Houston broke several weak Italian tackles and made a big break through the centre and it was finished off by number eight Netani Talei who burst through another three weak tackles to score.

The second was a burrow-over by prop Kyle Traynor but both were, pretty much, undeserved. Treviso dominated the first half in territory and possession. The Italians controlled the setpiece and were combative in the loose.

Their kicking from hand was better than Edinburgh and, on a evening of foul weather, they hung on to the ball better.

Yes, this was a win but it should have been so much more. This should have been the match when Edinburgh put this very limited Italian side to the sword and they never looked like doing it. In fact, they never looked like going for the third try, let alone the fourth.

It is hard to imagine the Magners League powerhouses like Munster or the Ospreys passing up a five-point opportunity like this.

Did anyone excel for Edinburgh? Talei, as usual, was immense. He has the fault of being occasionally greedy but he can be forgiven for that simply because he doesn’t get the support in attack he deserves.

Houston got the man-of-the-match award but only because he was the pick of a pretty dreadful backline.

The conundrum for Edinburgh coach Rob Moffat is that, at times, his side can play sublime rugby while at others it is ordinary or even downright terrible.

The problem stemmed from the half backs. Both Greig Laidlaw at scrum half and David Blair at fly half kicked atrociously from hand, kicking out on the full, only making ten or 15 metres at a time when going for touch and generally kicking the ball back to the Italians with an aimlessness that made the crowd groan.

The bottom line is that, if they continue to play like this, Edinburgh will end up knocked out of the Heineken Cup (they are almost there anyway) and will struggle around the bottom half of the Magners League. Crowds will drop off and we will be back to the depressing state of a few years ago.

The players are better than that, they have to start showing it consistently, though, or they will be in trouble.

The contrast with Glasgow was revealing. It was also a windswept and rainy night in Glasgow last Friday. The Warriors were also playing against an Italian side depleted of its stars yet Glasgow not only came away with then four-try bonus point, they deserved it too.

Glasgow attacked and attacked and attacked again, playing with momentum and enthusiasm despite the dreadful conditions and the ball-slowing tactics of their opponents.

Glasgow not only scored four tries, all through their outside backs (while, revealingly, Edinburgh score two through their forwards) but they could have had a sackload more. On numerous occasions, Glasgow broke through almost to the Aironi line only to be stopped by desperate foul play by their opponents. On most of these occasions, Glasgow’s fly half Duncan Weir kicked the points when really, they could have had seven-point scores.

The Glasgow play was quick, slick and accurate. Henry Pyrgos was good at scrum half (the best he has played all season), Weir was good at ten – although he did ignore one huge overlap in his own 22 and kicked away possession when it would have been better to run it – while the rest of the backs were lively, two-try Frederico Aranburu and Bernado Stortoni in particular.

Glasgow showed how to play against stuffy, limited opposition and coach Sean Lineen will hope that this weekend’s performance will provide the boost his team needs to start winning consistently and climb up the league table.

At the moment, there is only side in Scotland will any go-forward momentum – and it isn’t Edinburgh. Yes, Edinburgh were shorn of a host of stars on Friday night but the second-choice players should have been easily good enough to step up to the mark.

The Edinburgh-Glasgow derby games are approaching fast and, if Edinburgh don’t improve soon, they will end up losing both, just like last season. Those double wins in 2009-10 spurred Glasgow on to a play-off position and, although the Warriors are too far down in the league at the moment to see that as an immediate goal, there is no reason why they can’t expect the same again by the end of this season – they certainly deserve it given the way they are playing right now.

Edinburgh's David Blair puts a tackle in

Edinburgh's David Blair puts a tackle in

So, after four weeks, Edinburgh’s Magners League challenge is up and running at last. Their 32-24 four-try bonus-point victory over Leinster at Murrayfield on Friday was thoroughly well deserved.

Edinburgh looked more desperate for the win than Leinster, they were hungrier in the tackle and at the breakdown, they were sharper to the loose balls and, if it hadn’t been for a succession of missed kicks at goal, Edinburgh could have topped 40 points.

Tim Visser, Edinburgh’s flying Dutchman on the left wing, continues to impress, scoring his fifth try of the season with a spin out of Shane Horgan’s tackle that very few wingers could have attempted, let alone score from.

Mark Robertson on the other wing took his try well and looks more assured than he did in his error-strewn performance against Ulster the week before. Geoff Cross, the prop, took his try well too but that owed everything to sleight of hand from Mike Blair, quite clearly back to his best again now.

But what about his brother, David, at fly half? The younger Blair has enjoyed decidedly mixed reviews in his time at Edinburgh. His kicking from hand has not always been good and, if his distribution is fine, he always looked too slight to pose any threat with the ball in hand.

The Leinster game was easily his best in Edinburgh colours. He scored a good try with a feint and show before stretching for the line. He kicked well from the tee and distributed well: his pass out of the clutches of two Leinster tacklers to Robertson for his try was sublime.

With Phil Godman, the number one choice for Edinburgh at fly half, out injured for the rest of the season, David Blair will now get the chance to play regularly and show he can mix it at this level.

The prize, though, is not just a regular starting berth for Edinburgh, it is a place on the bench behind Dan Parks for the autumn internationals.

And, with professional rugby players getting injured far more regularly now than ever before, there is a chance that the younger Blair might actually be competing for the starting spot against the All Blacks if Parks doesn’t make it through until then without injury.

Blair faces stiff competition, though, from two rivals over in the west: Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir.

Weir got his first start for Glasgow in their 43-29 home defeat to Munster on Friday. And, although Glasgow lost, Weir again looked really good. His cross-field kick to set up van der Merwe for his try in the first half was perfect. He kicked very well from the tee (after a loose start) and a couple were inspirational, curling in from right on the touchlines.

He ran his lines well and used the garryowen to good effect – the main problem for Glasgow was that these high balls were not chased as hard and as effectively as they should have been, allowing Munster to charge back.

Jackson didn’t get much chance to shine when he came on for the final quarter, the game having already slipped away from Glasgow by then. But the competition for that understudy role to Parks in the Scotland squad is a very live one.

At the moment, just because of sheer experience in Magners League rugby, David Blair is probably ahead. He will also get more game time than his Glasgow rivals over the next few weeks and, if he takes the chance and continues to impress with Edinburgh, he could get a place on the bench for that All Blacks test on 13 November.

But both Jackson and Weir look the better long term bets. Of the two, Jackson may have his nose in front at the moment, again simply because of experience and the longer time he has had to bed in to professional rugby. But Weir really looks the future for Scottish rugby. He is only 19 but is playing with an attitude and authority that belies his years.

He may well miss out on a place in the Scotland squad this year and may also be unlucky when Andy Robinson comes to pick his World Cup squad next year. But his time will come and, when it does, he may be able to take possession of that Scotland number ten shirt for a long period too.

The only downside is that Visser is not a Scot. Scotland’s perennial problem has been scoring tries and Visser knows how to do it like no-one else in the Magners League.
And, against the Al Blacks in November, Scotland are going to have to find tries from somewhere.

One interesting twist to the weekend’s games, though, which may give an indication as to relative strengths elsewhere, came from the results against these two big Irish provinces.

Leinster have come to Scotland twice so far this season and lost both times, giving the Scottish teams their only wins of the season.

Munster have also been twice and emerged victorious on both occasions. Away wins are rare in the Magners League and Munster have two already, both courtesy of Scots’ teams.

Leinster are often slow starters and don’t really engage fully until the Heineken Cup comes around but Munster already look the better bet. They know how to grind out a win and they look up for it, already. Leinster looked sluggish and off-the-pace and, while they will undoubtedly improve as the season goes on, their early season form does tend to suggest their ‘golden generation’ of stars – including Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan and Gordon D’Arcy, might not be as good as they once were.

Ruaridh Jackson of Glasgow Warriors. <em>Picture: Glasgow Warriors</em>

Ruaridh Jackson of Glasgow Warriors. Picture: Glasgow Warriors

The longest season in Scottish professional rugby kicks off on Friday when Glasgow Warriors host Leinster at Firhill and continues on Saturday with Edinburgh travelling to Cardiff.

Players involved in both those games will find themselves playing, in many cases without a suitable break, through more matches in the Magners League than ever before, five games in the Six Nations, at least two World Cup warm-up games and all the way through to the World Cup in New Zealand late next summer.

It will be an extraordinarily attritional slog which again suggests that those teams, clubs provinces and countries with the most resources will fare the best.

But what of the Magners League now expanded to 12 teams to include the Italians for the first time? What can we expect of Edinburgh and Glasgow?

Edinburgh started last season very well, stuttered badly over the festive period in the derby games with Glasgow and then fell off in the most horrible fashion at the end.

Indeed, Edinburgh’s season got the perfect start when they won in Cardiff on the first day. They travel to the Welsh capital again this weekend with the core of the same team that triumphed last season.

But, to be fair, a victory in Cardiff on Saturday would be a surprise. Edinburgh have the fast, off-loading game to trouble anybody when it works but, to do that, they have to stop Cardiff from playing the forward-based, kicking game that works so well for them on their home patch.

And this is the core of Edinburgh’s problem – not for the first time as well. Edinburgh just don’t have a fly half who can kick well enough for position and close a game down by playing it in the opposition’s half of the field.

Phil Godman is a great distributor, he has a good break and he can tackle. What he can’t do well enough is pin teams back or relieve the pressure when necessary. Unfortunately, as a back up, Edinburgh have David Blair, a very similar type of player to Godman and someone who also has trouble leathering the ball far enough or accurately enough.

The only option – which Edinburgh don’t employ often enough – is to use Chris Paterson at ten when the ball needs to be cleared to touch well.

Paterson has one of the best kicks from hand in British rugby but Edinburgh don’t use it often enough. Every time there is a penalty that needs to be drilled hard over the touchlines, Paterson should do it, not Godman.

Godman’s more limited kicking talents will be alright-ish for the Magners League but certainly won’t be good enough on their own to see Edinburgh into the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup.

Teams that progress to that level of Europe’s elite competition need a rock-solid setpiece and an accurate line kicker: assets, incidentally, that Cardiff now possess with their Kiwi-centred pack and Dan Parks at fly half.

Edinburgh do, however, have a settled team. Mike Blair is looking back to his sharp best. They have the league’s top try scorer from last season in Tim Visser and they are reassuringly free from the sort-of injury crisis they have had in the past.

They will miss big Jim Hamilton at the setpiece but have enough quality throughout the squad to challenge solidly in the Magners League – as long as they sort out the kicking from hand.

As for Glasgow, coach Sean Lineen has had to juggle with meagre resources because of the length of his injury list. Arguably his four best players, Chris Cusiter, John Beattie, John Barclay and Al Kellock, are out injured while he has lost two other influential figures in Kelly Brown (to Saracens) and Parks (to Cardiff).

Much will be expected of the inexperienced half backs of Henry Pyrgos and Ruaridh Jackson but at least the fixture list has been relatively kind to Glasgow. Getting Leinster up first at home may not seem so, but the Irish provinces are doing their usual trick of resting most of their international stars at the start of the campaign. It hasn’t done them much harm in the past but, if there is ever a time to face Leinster, the opening game is probably it.

After that, Glasgow go away to the Dragons and then are home to Connacht. If Glasgow can emerge with two wins and eight points or more from those opening three games they should be relatively happy given the injury-ravaged squad they have to cope with.

For Edinburgh, the trip away to Cardiff is followed by a home match with Munster (again, like Glasgow, getting the big Irish provinces early may be no bad thing) and then away to Ulster.

Edinburgh could lose all three, which would be hard to recover from but, equally, they could win all three. However, a return of six points (one win and two bonus points) would be a reasonable return for these first three fixtures.

Both teams can make the play-offs and either could go and win it but it will be a long, hard season, longer and harder than ever before. The one that copes better with injuries, fatigue and luck (both good and bad) will emerge the highest in the league – it really may be as simple as that.

Edinburgh Rugby logoBy Hamish Macdonell

Rob Moffat has done many things right in his first season in charge as Edinburgh coach, but his use of substitutions isn’t one of them.

After an hour of Friday night’s game against the Scarlets, his team were well on top. Edinburgh were half way to securing the important bonus point and were just starting to stretch the Welshmen.

Moffat then took off his half backs, Mike Blair and Phil Godman, replacing them with Greig Laidlaw and David Blair.

This was obviously something Moffat had planned before the game: a lot of coaches seem to see the hour mark as the moment to make changes. Had Mike Blair and Godman been playing for Scotland right through the Six Nations, then such a change would have been understandable. They might have been jaded from so much intense, test-level rugby.

But neither Mike Blair nor Godman had played much of the Six Nations. Godman played one full game and (a very small part) of one other. Blair came on in three games but, again, not for very long.

So the reason for taking them off can’t have been to give them a rest. It must have been something else. But what?

Godman and the elder Blair are clearly the best half backs Edinburgh have got. Edinburgh were playing well, they desperately needed the bonus point, yet the fulcrum of the team – the part which was giving Edinburgh all that momentum – was taken off.

The effect was immediate and worrying. First David Blair and then Laidlaw missed tackles, the first of which contributed largely to the second Scarlets try.

But, more importantly, Edinburgh lost its go-forward impetus. Edinburgh’s game is based on quick ball, accurate passes and off-loads. The Blair and Godman combination was at the heart of that effort and, when it worked, it worked very, very well.

The Laidlaw-Blair combination was not nearly as good and, as a result, Edinburgh never got near securing the bonus point and came within four points of losing a match they should have won at a canter.

Some coaches seem to decide before the game that they will take off certain players and replace them at a certain point in the game. Few then seem to be able to react to what is going on the pitch and change their plans accordingly.

Sean Lineen, the Glasgow coach, said before his side’s defeat at Munster that every game was now a “grand final”. That’s a pretty good assessment of the Magners League run-in, with every point likely to be vital at the end.

Edinburgh were playing well, the four-try bonus point was within reach, Blair and Godman were fresh and rested from little game time in the Six Nations and were playing very well. Yet they were taken off on the hour mark. One can only hope that Moffat has learned from Edinburgh’s subsequent wobble and will not make the same mistake again.

What Moffat has done, however, is get his team playing high-tempo rugby of the sort that other teams in the league cannot live with when it is done right. The Ospreys found that out when they went down to the five-try blitz in Edinburgh’s last home game.

Edinburgh tried to play in the way against the Scarlets and, while it looked impressive, too much rugby was being played in the Edinburgh half. In some ways, it was like Scotland against France.

Edinburgh had bags of possession, did all sorts of fancy stuff with it, off-loading, clearing rucks quickly, finding players with neat inside balls and all sorts of things, but it was being done with limited territory.

One can’t help wondering if it might have been better to have been a little more prosaic in Edinburgh’s half, kicking for territory a little more and then playing the heads’ up rugby in the final third of the field, rather than exerting so much effort for so little reward in Edinburgh’s half.

In the final analysis, Edinburgh were so much the better team, they should have won with a four-try bonus point. The Scarlets were poor, very poor. Both their tries were very soft and should never have got through a decent defence.

For Edinburgh, the back row was outstanding, particularly man-of-the-match Roddy Grant, who took his try with the sort of pace and swerve that has served him so well on the sevens circuit.

The make-shift back line worked in patches but the key to Edinburgh’s play-of-chasing run-in is the return of Mike Blair. He is central to Edinburgh’s quick game, not only because of his speed to the rucks and his desire to provide quick ball to the backs, but because he presents a threat round the fringes that keeps opposing back rows honest.

If he can stay fit and, crucially, if Moffat can keep him and Godman on the pitch for as long as possible, then Edinburgh should finish in the top four. A home semi-final should not be out of reach either.

One final salutary thought, however, was provided by a comparison of the attendance from Murrayfield last night (2,700) and Munster’s game against Glasgow at Thomond Park (a 20,000 sell-out). Our teams may be doing much, much better than in the past but they clearly aren’t doing enough to attract more people in through the turnstiles to see them.

Maybe the success of getting to the play-offs will do it. They have to hope so, otherwise the game in Scotland really is in a sorry state.

By Hamish Macdonell
Edinburgh Rugby logoIt is time we faced the truth, however unpalatable it may be: Blair can no longer pretend he has a place at Number Ten.

His elder brother is good, very good. His younger brother appears to be even better but, for David Blair, it is time Edinburgh Rugby faced up to reality – he is not good enough to be a professional fly half.

It was Edinburgh against the Ospreys at Murrayfield yesterday. The pitch was firm, the sun was out, there was no wind – it was a day for running rugby.

David Blair played the first half and Phil Godman came on at ten for the second. The score at the end of the first half was 7-0 to Edinburgh. The result at the end was 33-17. Edinburgh scored one try in the first half and four in the second.

It was not that Godman suddenly turned on the magic and conjured tries for nothing. He didn’t. But what he did, he did right. He didn’t make the mistakes that David Blair made. The problem in the first half was that Edinburgh created a host of chances and botched all but one. In the second half, they created a host of chances and took all but one.

In the first half, there were dropped balls, forward passes, kicks out on the full, knock ons and stupid off-sides. Not all of them can be attributed to David Blair but quite a few can be and, when he went off and Godman came on, Edinburgh clicked. Rather than being a game of two halves, it was a game of two fly halves.

In the second half, passes were held, good lines were run and the back three came on to the explosive game that tore the Ospreys apart.

The fly half is the fulcrum of any rugby team and on the evidence of yesterday – and, I’m afraid, of previous games – David Blair just doesn’t have it to get his team moving forward. He did have a good game away to the Scarlets earlier this season and his break set up the winning try but the fly half has to act as the catalyst for the whole team and today Blair had the chance to do that and he blew it.

Before this game kicked off, the rich men of south Wales with an entire back row made up of former All Blacks, were clear favourites to win but they lost it up front.

Edinburgh’s supremacy in the loose, where number eight Roddy Grant was immense, and in the scrum, gave Edinburgh the chance to play going forward.

Mike Blair showed signs that he is getting back to his best, taking quick tap penalties and putting through one delightful grubber with his left foot that almost led to a score.

In contrast, Mike Philips, the Ospreys scrum half and the man who beat Mike Blair to the Lions nine shirt in the summer, was solid but unspectacular, controlling but never threatening.

The one player, though, who will never forget this game is Tim Visser. The Dutch winger was only on the field after another untimely injury to Simon Webster, who had been on his first start back this season before limping off after a few minutes. But Visser took full advantage, scoring the first hat-trick by an Edinburgh player in the Magners League and the fastest hat-trick in league history, taking his three touchdowns in just five minutes at the start of the second half.

All three were wonderful winger’s tries but his second was the pick of the bunch. He received the ball in Edinburgh’s half, surged towards Nikki Walker, his opposite number, chipped through and left the former Hawick star for pace as he won the race to the line.

The first try was scored by Ben Cairns after good work from Visser and the last by Mark Robertson who came off his left foot twice at full speed to serve past the Ospreys defence.

Cairns deservedly took the man-of-the-match award, showing that he has settled in very well at full back.

But with Scotland players watching from the stands were there some indicators of Andy Robinson’s thinking ahead of next week?

Mike Blair was allowed to play just one half of the game, as was Phil Godman, suggesting that – as usual – they will be on the bench for the England game. Not so Nick de Luca, though. The Edinburgh centre played the entire game and struggled for the last 15 minutes with a bad hip injury.

That did suggest that he may not be needed by Robinson next week and we may see the re-introduction of Alex Grove in the squad for the Calcutta Cup, if not necessarily in the starting 15, in place of de Luca.

However, it is worth stressing that this was a fantastic result for Edinburgh. A comprehensive win against the Ospreys is always to be cheered but with a bonus point too? It was excellent. More so when compared with Glasgow’s laboured draw away to Connacht on Friday night.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have suffered this year and in previous years during the Six Nations period. The theory has been that the lack of financial clout and lack of strength in depth – just look at that Ospreys back row again, Jerry Collins, Marty Holah and Filoh Tiatia – meant that the Scottish sides would always struggle against their better resourced Welsh and Irish counterparts during this time.

But Edinburgh showed today that it is possible to win, and win well, even when deprived of their Scotland players.

It is true that Edinburgh were only missing four players (Paterson, Jacobsen, Ford and Hamilton) and Glasgow have had to deal with the loss of far more than that, but Edinburgh have nothing like the resources of the Ospreys and, today at least, they showed that almost all of the Edinburgh squad can step up to the mark and play better than their better paid and more lauded opponents.

David Blair is, unfortunately, probably the only exception to that. However, if Mike Blair wants to keep playing professionally with his brother, maybe he should call on his other brother Alex and get him into the Edinburgh squad. The way he has been playing for the Scotland under 20s suggests he deserves a step-up and soon.