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Jim Thompson

Edinburgh's David Denton tackled during a pre-season friendly

Edinburgh's David Denton tackled during a pre-season friendly

So much for a new start to a new league. After the first weekend, Scotland’s record in the new-look RaboDirect Pro12 league stands as follows: played two, lost two. Not only that, but Edinburgh handed their opponents a four-try bonus-point victory, something Glasgow only just avoided.

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.

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Sean Lamont

Sean Lamont

The news that three of his backs are unavailable for Sunday’s must-win game against Ireland has turned an already complex selection decision into an extremely difficult one for Scotland coach Andy Robinson.

Robinson has just lost outside centre Jo Ansbro and fullbacks Hugo Southwell and Rory Lamont to injury.

Of these, only Southwell’s would have been a blessing in disguise. The Stade Francais fullback played so dreadfully against Wales that he would have been lucky to make it into the 22, let alone the starting 15 for the match against Ireland.

But after that, it starts to get very tricky for Robinson. Southwell’s likely replacement would have been Rory Lamont but the Toulon fullback was injured last weekend against Agen, leaving the Scotland coach with a dilemma.

Robinson has made it clear he is a fan of the big Bath fullback Jack Cuthbert. Cuthbert, though, is uncapped and untested. The Irish would be certain to try to exploit that and he would have to cope with a barrage of high balls and attendant Irish tackles if he was picked for the first time for Sunday’s game.

If not Cuthbert then, it is likely to be Chris Paterson – a selection which appeared more likely this afternoon when Paterson was left out of Edinburgh’s squad for this week’s match against the Scarlets.

Robinson has not shown a huge amount of faith in Scotland’s record cap holder since he became coach and it is undoubtedly true that Paterson is certainly not the treat he once was. He is also decidedly lightweight as a fullback.

But picking Paterson would gives Robinson other options, options the coach should exploit for Sunday’s game. If Paterson is picked, then he would take over the goalkicking from the fly half (Dan Parks or Ruaridh Jackson).

One of the worries Robinson has had in picking Jackson is that he can be a bit wayward from the tee. Picking Paterson would solve that problem. Paterson could take all the kicks, from the tee and from hand to touch, leaving Jackson to do what he does best – run the back line. Not only that, but Paterson could slot into the fly half role if Jackson was injured.

If Robinson goes for Jackson and Paterson, therefore, Scotland would be covered in all departments: a running and speedy fly half, a superb goalkicking fullback and a substitute fly half too. They would also have a fly half who threatens the opposition back line and takes the ball flat, neither of which Parks does with any authority.

Paterson has been on the wrong side of the Scotland squad since the Six Nations started which suggested that the Edinburgh fullback was edging away from the side just when World Cup preparations are starting to be made. Now, though, he might have the chance to play himself back into the reckoning – as part of a double act with Jackson.

That would mean axing Parks from the squad with the World Cup round the corner? Would Robinson be brave enough to do that? We’ll see …

That, though, is only part of the problem. Graeme Morrison, Robinson’s preferred inside centre, is out injured. First-choice outside centre, Ansbro, is also now out. Nick de Luca has been so ineffectual at inside centre in the first two games that Robinson sent him back to Edinburgh last week – as clear a sign as there can be that De Luca was being discarded ahead of the Irish game.

Who to pick? Sean Lamont? Lamont was certainly Scotland’s best player against Wales and has to start against Ireland. But, for all his power going forward and his strength in defence, passing is not Lamont’s strong point (remember the chance he butchered against Wales in Cardiff last year?)

He has played outside centre for the Scarlets but his best position remains on the wing.

One consideration Robinson will certainly have to have, though, is that somebody has to mark Brian O’Driscoll. Lamont may not be the best passer of the ball but, as he showed against Wales, he will tackle and tackle again until he collapses so he may well start at 13.

Max Evans is the best outside centre Scotland have available but Robinson has been trying to convert him into a wing and while he may consider bringing him back to the 13 shirt against Ireland, the chances are that he will keep him outside to continue his development as a winger.

That still leaves the inside centre position. Robinson may have been prepared to ditch De Luca before the injuries struck. Now, though, he may have to give him one more chance, if only because he has little option. The only other possibilities are Alex Grove (who has not been part of the squad this year so would take time to get up to speed) and Ben Cairns, who has also been allowed to play for Edinburgh this week which means he is not being considered either.

The changes in the pack are, however, easier to define. Tighthead Euan Murray has opted out because the game is on a Sunday (but he might have lost his place anyway) and will be replaced by Glasgow prop Moray Low.

Richie Gray will come into the second row in place of Nathan Hines, who should drop to the bench where he can cover both the second and back rows and Johnnie Beattie will probably return in place of Richie Vernon at number eight.

The side that Robinson may well pick, if he is being conservative, would be as follows: Jacobsen, Ford, Low, Gray, Kellock, Barclay, Brown, Beattie, Rory Lawson, Parks, De Luca, Lamont, Evans, Walker, Paterson; subs – Welsh, Scott Lawson, Hines, Rennie, Blair, Cuthbert.

The team he should pick, though, if he is feeling more adventurous, would be: Jacobsen, Ford, Low, Gray, Kellock, Barclay, Brown, Beattie, Blair, Jackson, De Luca, Evans, Lamont, Walker, Paterson; Subs: Welsh, Fergus Thompson, Hines, Rennie, Rory Lawson, Jim Thompson.

One criticism that has been levelled at Robinson in the past is that he is an excellent coach but a poor selector. This would be as good a time as any to prove those critics wrong.

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.