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.
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.