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Tim Visser of Edinburgh

Tim Visser of Edinburgh

This weekend’s Magners League fixtures were curious affairs for the Scottish teams. Both were playing at home against teams at or near the top of the league. Both had to make do with scratch sides minus most of their international players – but both put in stirring performances which belied their positions at the bottom of the league.

Indeed, these were performances far better than anyone in Scotland had any right to expect, given that Edinburgh started the weekend in third-bottom place and Glasgow one place below that.

Edinburgh won, amazingly, 23–16 against the star-studded champions, the Ospreys, while Glasgow lost 19–22 to Ulster on the last kick of the match.

But both matches showed what can be achieved with the right sort of foreign import. The Glasgow score was really Glasgow 19, Ruan Pienaar 22. The South African half-back kicked all of Ulster’s points and scored his side’s only try of the game. Without him, Ulster would have lost.

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No one has yet managed to pin down exactly how much the Irish province are paying Pienaar, but it is rumoured to be more than anyone else in the Magners League: ever. On the basis of this game and Ulster’s record this season, the classy Springbok is proving to be good value for money.

Ulster were always a solid, middle-of-the-table side capable of some great wins and some narrow losses, but they were always behind Munster and Leinster in the Irish pecking order. As part of the province’s desire to end that sense of inequality, they bought in a number of South Africans, the most expensive and high-profile of whom was Pienaar.

If Pienaar can prove to be the difference in tight games away at places such as Firhill, and if he can propel Ulster into the playoffs for the league title, then he shows just what the right sort of foreign import can do.

For Edinburgh, last night’s game was won by Dutchman Tim Visser – but he is a very different sort of foreign import than Pienaar. Visser is the type of foreign import that Edinburgh can afford – he is ludicrously cheap compared to Pienaar, but he has won more games for the Scottish side than anybody else in the past two seasons.

Last night’s try was Visser’s 12th in the Magners League this season. He was the league’s top scorer last year with ten. This year he has already matched the all-time league record for a season and there are still several games to go.

But it was the way in which Visser took his try that showed his class. Faced with the excellent British and Irish Lion in Tommy Bowe, Visser feinted left, then right, then accelerated past the bewildered Bowe. He still had scrum-half Rhys Webb to beat, so he angled towards the Osprey, using his hand-off to propel him round in the tackle so he could ground the ball.

There is simply no one as good at scoring tries in Scotland at the moment, and there is really no one as good in the whole of the Magners League. Visser is that good. Without him, Edinburgh would really struggle. He is as important to Edinburgh as the inspirational Todd Blackadder was in the early 2000s – but, crucially, he shows that teams do not need tens of thousands of pounds a week to import influential foreigners.

Visser might be a one-off, but Edinburgh need to find the next Visser and the next, be they Dutch, or Canadian, or American or whatever. He may not be Ruan Pienaar – he might be even better.

However, the home-based story of this weekend’s action concerned two other players – one turning himself into a saint, the other a sinner.

The saint was Greig Laidlaw, the Edinburgh scrum-half who was converted into a fly-half for the Ospreys match more out of desperation than anything else. With Phil Godman and young Alex Blair out injured, the Edinburgh coaching team felt they had little choice but to give Laidlaw a run in the position he used to fill as a junior.

But he was very, very good. In a man-of-the-match display he kept his team going forward, tackled well, put in a series of useful grubbers and brought on his outside runners with no little skill.

Given that Edinburgh were beaten comprehensively up front – they were shunted back at will by the massive Ospreys pack and gave away umpteen penalties in the tight – it is a miracle they won the game at all. Very few games are won by the side which loses up front, but somehow Edinburgh managed this last night and part of the credit must go to Laidlaw – who, with Mike Blair approaching his good performances of old, kept Edinburgh’s backs on the front foot despite the pasting their forwards were getting.

For Glasgow, though, the sinner was Johnnie Beattie. Relegated from both the Scotland team and the Glasgow lineup, where he has lost his place to Richie Vernon, Beattie came on as a substitute late on in the match against Ulster and handed the game to the Irish province.

He gave away a first penalty late on for holding on to the ball, which allowed Pienaar to edge Ulster in front. This was then cancelled out by a brilliant long-range penalty by Glasgow fly-half Duncan Weir – but then Beattie was even worse.

With the game into the last minute and the sides locked at 19–19 (which was a fairish reflection of the game up that point), Beattie again held on to the ball in the tackle and was pinged by the referee. The offence was in Glasgow’s half, though – so although daft, the offence wasn’t fatal to Glasgow’s chances of taking something from the game.

Then Beattie threw the ball away to prevent a quick Ulster tap penalty and the referee marched Glasgow back another ten yards as a further punishment. This brought the kick within Pienaar’s range and he slotted it, giving Ulster the win and condemning Glasgow to an undeserved loss.

So, one excellent win and one narrow loss. But the overall picture for the Scottish teams is more complex than that.

Edinburgh beat the league champions with a team so full of young unknowns that it was a considerable achievement even to give the Welshmen a proper game. Edinburgh had a front row of Kyle Traynor, Andrew Kelly and David Young and a back row of David Denton, Fraser Mackenzie and Scott Newlands. With Laidlaw at fly-half and James King in the centre, along with subs Jack Gilding, Struan Dewar and Tom Brown, this team bore more of a resemblance to an academy team than one that could take on, and beat, a side with five British and Irish Lions in it and a former All Black superstar.

For Glasgow, it was a similar story. The Warriors back five in the scrum consisted of Aly Muldowney, Rob Harley, James Eddie, Ryan Wilson and Richie Vernon, while they had youngsters Peter Murchie and Alex Dunbar in the backs.

If Edinburgh and Glasgow are now nothing more than development sides, then they are doing very, very well in that role. All those young players performed wonderfully well against more experienced, more vaunted professional opponents, but the lowly positions of both Scottish teams are not aberrations.

They are where they are because they cannot compete, week in and week out, against the teams with the big budgets, the teams that can afford to bring in players like Pienaar. Both teams had good games this weekend and all those youngsters will have learned a lot from the experience.

Just imagine what the injection of some decent money, to bring in some hardened southern hemisphere stars, could do to the development of these players and these teams. Then, and only then, will the Scottish sides be able to compete, regularly and consistently, with their well-off Irish and Welsh counterparts.

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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.

Glasgow Warriors' logoBy Hamish Macdonell

The four-try bonus point has been one of the best additions to the Magners League. It rewards attacking teams, it means that one-sided games continue to be entertaining right to the end and, with a league as tight as the Magners is now, it will determine who gets into the play-offs and who won’t.

Glasgow Warriors coach Sean Lineen said after his side’s three-try, 27-19 win over the Dragons at Firhill yesterday that he wasn’t bothered about not getting the bonus point.

“Am I worried about the bonus point? Not at all. Against a team that has won here five times in a row, I’ll take the win thanks. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said.

Lineen is right, but only up to a point. Yes, the win was vital. That had to be secured. Only then should his side have gone chasing the bonus point.

But this really was a point dropped. Glasgow had two tries on the board after just 20 minutes. Twice in the second half, Dan Parks opted to kick for goal when the Warriors were in good attacking positions and had a ten-point cushion over their opponents.

Yes, they had to go for the win first, but there seemed to be a lack of confidence about Glasgow. Despite playing well and dominating their opponents in almost every aspect of play, Glasgow didn’t seem comfortable being ten points clear and wanted to play safety-first rugby.

This isn’t a new development. Anyone who remembers December’s Glasgow v Gloucester game in the Heineken Cup will remember the same lack of confidence.

Glasgow had blown Gloucester off the park. They were taking their illustrious Premiership opponents to pieces and won 33-11. Yet they only scored two tries, racking up the points via Parks’ boot all through the game when they could have been more adventurous and secured the bonus point.

Scotland’s professional sides have come on immensely over the past two seasons. They used to be the whipping boys of Celtic rugby. Then they became hard to beat and solid mid-table teams. Now they are competing for silverware.

Both sides have developed as teams, but Glasgow, in particular, seem to lack the confidence to know they have a game won and push on for the bonus point.

In part, this is because of the way Glasgow play. The Warriors have a very different style to Edinburgh. While Edinburgh’s game is based on quick off-loading out of the tackle, Glasgow play to the boot of Parks and then utilise a quick rucking and handling game in their opponents’ half to try to score tries.

The result is an odd mix of exhilarating back play – but only at times – and caution. When Glasgow get it together, as they did in the first 20 minutes yesterday, they are brilliant. There are very few sides that could live with them when they get quick ball and have their fast backs all coming on to the ball hard, changing the angle of attack and creating space for others.

It seemed odd, therefore, to see the cautious, safety-first side come out in the second half when Glasgow could – and should – have pushed on for more tries and the important bonus point.

Can anyone imagine Munster or Leinster going for goal, at home, with a quarter of the match to go and sitting on a ten-point lead when there was a bonus point to be won?

Munster and Leinster have the confidence which comes from winning consistently. Glasgow are good enough to emulate that, they just have to have the belief in their own abilities that their fans have.

It was sobering that both Scotland’s pro sides scored three tries at the weekend, each missing out on the bonus point. But while Glasgow at least got the win, Edinburgh traipsed back from Connacht with just a losing bonus point when one more try would have given them five points and a clear second place in the league.

Both sides can finish in the top four and secure a play-off place, but both will have to play better than they did this last weekend. Glasgow played well, very well, but only in patches. Edinburgh did the same and really should have done better.

And if, by the end of the season, Glasgow miss out on a play-off spot by one point, Sean Lineen will know where that point was lost – regardless of what he says to the press in his post-match interviews.