Edinburgh went down to a thumping, shocking 15–38 defeat at home to Cardiff and Glasgow lost away at Ulster 28–14. The Scottish teams managed just one try between them, while their Welsh and Irish opponents racked up seven tries in response.
Both games followed the same pattern. The Scottish teams were in the game for 60 minutes (Edinburgh actually led at the 57-minute mark), but both were then blown away in the final quarter as their more experienced opponents stepped up a gear.
And that is the key to both defeats – and, unfortunately, for the rest of the season to come.
Both Cardiff and Ulster were able to move into a higher gear in the final quarter because they had bigger, stronger, older, more experienced and battle-hardened professionals in their team.
If there was one cameo that summed up the problems for Scotland’s pro teams last night, it was this.
In the final 20 minutes at Murrayfield, Edinburgh brought on replacement back-row forward Hamish Watson. Watson is 19. He is a quick and gifted sevens player, but looks like he is still in school.
As he was coming on for Edinburgh, Cardiff brought on Paul Tito, the former captain of the New Zealand Maoris, and Ma’ama Molitika, the 17-stone, 6ft 5 in Tongan. It was no contest – as, at that point, was the game itself.
Both Ulster and Cardiff have lost players to the World Cup (not as many as the Scottish teams, it has to be said), but both have bought in experienced southern-hemisphere players to plug the gap.
The Scottish teams cannot afford to do this so they have to rely on inexperienced, home-grown youngsters instead. And, when you consider the low base that the Scottish teams started from this season – both were in the bottom third of the league at the end of last season – it is not difficult to see why they are struggling so badly now.
Edinburgh have seven players at the World Cup and Glasgow have eight. That is half of each team’s first-choice XV away and unavailable for the first couple of months of the league season. With such slim squads at both teams, there was always a danger that both would be in serious trouble during the World Cup months, and that looks like it is going to be the case.
Unless Glasgow and Edinburgh can summon some unlikely victories in the next few weeks, it may be that their seasons are over before their Scotland stars come back – simply because they do not possess the strength in depth to cope during this period.
Both have gifted youngsters in their ranks. Indeed, both competed well for three-quarters of their matches on Friday night. But it is the lack of strength in depth on the bench, the lack of older, wiser, stronger professionals (often imported from abroad) that is most telling.
It didn’t help Edinburgh’s cause on Friday night that they squandered a couple of gilt-edged chances before Cardiff had clicked into gear. The first came when Simon Webster, playing at 13, took Casey Lualua on the outside and headed for the line. If he had put his head down and gone for it, he surely would have made it but he stopped, checked for support and the chance was gone.
A couple of minutes later, the new youngster Matt Scott, playing at 12, was clear with Tim Visser outside him and only one man to beat. A good pass to the winger would have resulted in a try, but Scott fluffed it and the ball went straight to touch.
Edinburgh did touch down in the second half, but Visser was ruled to have grazed the touchline before the ball was carried over the line and the try was ruled out.
When Cardiff attacked, though, it was with more purpose, more urgency and more power. Players took the ball at pace and were strong enough to offload in the tackle, causing Edinburgh all manner of problems. Edinburgh, in comparison, were static when they tried to go forward and often spilled the ball forward when trying to offload out of the tackle.
Edinburgh number eight David Denton was his usual rumbustious self. The young front row stood up reasonably well to the pressures, and Jim Thompson was adventurous at full-back – but, for all their effort, they did not match up to the experience of their opponents.
Cardiff’s tries came from prop Sam Hobbs (two), wing Tom James and number eight Andries Pretorius, with outside-half Ceri Sweeney adding three conversions and four penalties to complete the bonus-point rout.
Edinburgh’s points all came from the boot of Greig Laidlaw, who converted five penalties and missed one.
Edinburgh were unlucky with the referee. With penalty after penalty coming from Cardiff offences in front of their own posts, the referee only reached for the yellow card to bin replacement Nathan Trevett in the final two minutes, when it was virtually meaningless.
But this just showed how much more streetwise, professional and experienced Cardiff were. Edinburgh will need to find the same qualities if they are to prevent this season turning into a disaster in the very near future.
For Glasgow, Duncan Weir showed, once again, why he is the best fly-half playing in Scotland today, keeping his team going forward, releasing his backs well and playing with authority well above his 20 years of age.
Kiwi centre Troy Nathan looks a good addition (the sort of experienced southern hemisphere player the Scottish teams have so few of) and he scored Glasgow’s only try in Belfast, while Stuart Hogg at full-back was fabulous under the high ball and combative going forward.
But, as with Edinburgh, Glasgow didn’t have the strength and experience to cope with the Ulster pressure in the final quarter.
At least Glasgow have only lost away and they return to Firhill next week. Unfortunately Munster are the visitors, another team with the sort of strength in depth the Scottish teams can only dream of.
Edinburgh have to play away at the Ospreys and would do extremely well to emerge just with a losing bonus point from that encounter.
The lesson from Friday’s nights games is a sobering one for Scottish rugby. The two teams have promising youngsters, but that may not be enough to prevent them being so stranded at the bottom of the league by the end of October that the returning World Cup stars will be unable to make any difference.
It could be a very long, and a very depressing, season.