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Newcastle Falcons

Phil Godman of Edinburgh

Phil Godman of Edinburgh

With a remarkable degree of symmetry, Edinburgh completed their warm-up games before this week’s start of the league rugby with the same set of results as Scotland: two games, two wins.

Edinburgh, with a largely young, inexperienced and unknown team, do look in good fettle – better, it has to be said, than Glasgow, who went down 28–0 away to Sale last Friday, the same English team Edinburgh had beaten 22–28 the week before.

But not only are Edinburgh looking good on the pitch. The new management at the SRU – and at Edinburgh – have decided they had to do something to make the empty spaces at Murrayfield more appealing on match days.

Friday’s night match at home to the Newcastle Falcons was the first try-out for the new, supporter-friendly initiative – and it seemed to be an unqualified success.

For the last few years, Edinburgh’s hardy few supporters have been given space in the big west stand – which, as anyone who knows Murrayfield will remember, is the most distant from the pitch. There is a 100-metre running track between the west stand and the pitch – built, apparently, when American football was all the rage and the American teams needed that much space for all their players.

But for rugby, particularly, when there are not many supporters present, it adds so much distance to the spectating experience that it has often eroded any home advantage Edinburgh may have had before the game kicks off.

This season, fans have been given the east stand, which is much closer to the pitch; but also, importantly, Edinburgh have placed crash barriers along the west touchline and are allowing fans to watch the game from pitchside. It has changed what was a pretty soulless and detached experience into something much more real, much more forceful and more like a club game.

Leaning on the barriers, spectators are close enough to hear the play calls from the players, to witness the crunching hits at a very close distance and be as near to the action as it is possible to be in any professional rugby ground in the country – possibly even the world.

There aren’t any seats, but with a catering van selling burgers and beers just by the 22-yard line, everything is much closer – and not just the action.

Edinburgh have long needed something to lift the crowds at Murrayfield and these new developments are certainly part of the answer. The other part of the answer is a winning team – and, from the look of Friday night’s efforts, Edinburgh may be closer to uncovering it.

Edinburgh have already lost seven players to the World Cup, including their first-choice front row. That is a hefty gap to fill and the first few games of a new season, while the World Cup is underway, were always going to prove problematic for teams such as Edinburgh who have so many international stars.

But it really does seem as if a whole bunch of youngsters are ready to step up. Tom Brown at full-back was a revelation coming forward and the line he took at speed to breach the Newcastle line, before giving the scoring pass to Greig Laidlaw, was first-class (and this was while Edinburgh were down to 14 men).

Laidlaw himself was inspirational and, if feeling aggrieved by his absence from the World Cup squad, he didn’t let it affect his game – playing at scrum-half, fly-half and full-back at various stages in the match and scoring all but five of Edinburgh’s points in their 20–17 win.

David Denton at number eight is developing into the good, ball-carrying back-rower Edinburgh have needed for some time, while Sean Cox at six displayed one delightful grubber through the Newcastle lines that wouldn’t have disgraced a top fly-half.

Phil Godman wasn’t at his best at fly-half – but, to be fair, he has been out of the game for many months and this was his first proper game back. Nevertheless, he will have to improve with so many talented youngsters eager to push him out of the way in the pursuit of first-team rugby at Edinburgh.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect, though, was the performance of what is clearly Edinburgh’s second-choice front row. Kyle Traynor, Andrew Kelly and Jack Gilding kept the Edinburgh scrum solid (although Traynor knocked on at least three times, so needs to do better in the loose).

Matt Scott looked composed and lively when he came on behind the scrum – and, crucially, Edinburgh went ahead and closed out the game, a clear sign of maturity from such a young side.

Tim Visser’s brother Sepp was given a chance on the wing, but he didn’t really show, at this early stage, that he has quite what it takes to step up to professional rugby. His brother, however, was his usual brilliant self. It is such a shame that Scotland will have to wait another year for his services, as he is clearly the best winger in Scotland and possibly the best winger in Celtic rugby at the moment.

But Scotland’s loss is Edinburgh’s gain and those fans who choose the west touchline to watch Edinburgh games in the coming weeks will see him at close-hand. If that doesn’t bring the punters in, nothing will.

One final point to brood over, though. The Magners League has changed its name this year to the RaboDirect Pro12. As it is sponsored by a bank which hardly has a presence in Scotland, no one here will really know what to call it. It may end up getting called the Pro12 for short, or perhaps the Celtic Pro12.

Either way, Edinburgh could really do with being there or thereabouts at the end of the season if they are going to show that this really is the start of something new and special at Murrayfield.

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<em>Picture: Justin Kraemer</em>

Picture: Justin Kraemer

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Winter happens. And some years it happens more than others. Unless you’re reading this from your holiday home in Barbados, or you’ve emigrated to the Antipodes, you might have noticed we’re in the middle of a cold snap which has played chaos with the sporting calendar. Football is particularly badly hit again, the mounting pile-up of snow causing a similar pile-up of fixtures. Still, it has stoked the debate again about winter shut-downs and the likes.

At one time I was all for it, particularly when spending many an arduous hour, sipping freshly squeezed orange juice while watching Rangers train in Florida. A decade ago, Rangers jetted 3,000 miles just as Scotland began to endure a pleasantly mild January.

Since the referees strike in the last weekend of November, only a handful of SPL matches have been played. Pretty much all of December has been wiped out. And there is still no sign of a thaw.

A year ago, snow set in the week before Christmas and the chaos lasted through much of January. Indeed, the “live” clash between St Johnstone and Rangers at the end of February was another victim of the cold. So, without trying, that’s three months where a case could be made for having a break.

In principal, a winter shut-down seems the right and proper thing to do. Unfortunately – and this always has been the biggest barrier – no-one has a clue the best time to have it.

Sunday
Given the environment in which it belongs, the BBC Sports Personality of The Year awards could easily have been tested for steroids given the size that it has grown to. Several years ago, it was a cosy wee show where the nation (although I always had the sneaking suspicion that it was just England who took an interest) would wait to see what hard-luck story had captured the imagination, and was therefore worthy of a trophy.

These days however, SPoTY has turned into an extravaganza, with Sunday’s gathering at the LG Arena in Birmingham played out in front of 12,000 guests.

Tony McCoy won, his Grand National success obviously tugging at sufficient heart-strings for people to register a vote, although what can’t be ignored was the support whipped up (still legal under Jockey Club rules) from within the racing fraternity. In a ten-horse race McCoy gathered 42% of the vote, an amazing statistic and one which might have the Electoral Reform Society using it as a case study.

If SPoTY has changed in size it has also radically amended just where it pulls its “personalities” from. Winner McCoy’s biggest success this year was in the Grand National, covered by the BBC, while third-placed Jessica Ennis has performed mostly in front of licence payers, which also applies to diver Tom Daley (6th).

But Strictly BBC viewers just wouldn’t be familiar with the best of the rest.
But of the rest, runner-up Phil Taylor is only ever seen on ITV or Sky, the latter also being home the majority of the time for Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowall, David Haye and Graeme Swann, while Eurosport would have a stake in Mark Cavendish and slider Amy Williams (although she did take Olympic gold on the BBC.)

Victory for McCoy (who should slip his election agent either a fiver or a few tips for a job well done) will placate followers of the gee-gees who have always claimed those involved with that industry have never got the recognition they’ve deserved, a view I’ve always subscribed to – ever since the year my vote for Red Rum didn’t count!

Monday
Sam Allardyce’s sacking but a week ago from Blackburn hasn’t so much left a void as a complete mess. While Big Sam was shown the door along with assistant Neil McDonald, coach Steve Kean was kept on, something that obviously rankles with Allardyce. Scotsman Kean is obviously well thought of in football, and the new Indian owners at Ewood Park have shown faith in him by installing him as caretaker manager, which appears to have tipped Allardyce over the edge. “If there was anybody capable of looking after the reins when I left, with all due respect to Steve, it would be Neil,” admitted Allardyce, who is still wondering, and angry, as to who has been two-faced in this saga. But better, Sam, to rise above it, keep your dignity, and say nothing – and watch on as the buggers find out the hard way who really knew what they were doing …

Tuesday
I like my darts. I like my cricket. So I was always going to love Sky’s coverage of the PDC World Championship from the Alexandra Palace when Andrew “Freddie’” Flintoff joined Sid Waddell in the commentary box. Classic TV, with Freddie giving it all the chat and delivering some classic “oooone-hundred-and-eighteeeee” calls. The fans loved it and so too did the producers on Sky Sports News, who ran the feature right through Wednesday. Whatever anyone thinks of master showman and impresario Barry Hearn, he and Sky really have turned darts into the most watchable sport on the box.

Wednesday
At a press conference, SFA chief executive Stewart Regan and its president, George Peat, give their first public reaction to the McLeish Review, the former First Minister’s report into the workings of Scottish football. Peat arrives with a toy dinosaur in hand. “A member of staff gave it to me a few years ago,” smiled Peat. “It adorns my office every day, just to remind me.” Of what George?

That the SFA is a prehistoric organisation? Or that you may be plastic? Or that someday you’ll have to ask who plays at Jurassic Park?

Thursday
When your physics master at school weds your music teacher you have to wonder what will come out of that relationship. Possibly someone who can get a tune out of a Periodic Table. But in my case, it was Scotland prop Euan Murray. So having always taken a biological interest in his career it was good to see him signing a two-and-a-half-year contract with Newcastle Falcons. The 30-year-old had been without a club since being released by Northampton, partly because he refused to play on Sunday due to religious beliefs. That problem shouldn’t arise too often with Newcastle as they mostly play on a Friday evening.

Friday
Friday and Christmas Eve. No, not a couple Tommy Sheridan met at Cupid’s. But one may wonder why his lies and fall merits a mention in this article. It is entirely because of his victory speech outside the Court of Session after winning his defamation case against the News of The World.

Back then, Comrade Tommy proclaimed: “Gretna have made it into Europe for the first time in their lives, but what we have done in the last five weeks is the equivalent of Gretna taking on Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and beating them on penalties, that’s what we’ve done.”

It was a very good analogy at the time, but one that was ultimately flawed.
This tie was obviously always going to be played over two legs, home and away, Edinburgh then Glasgow, so less chance of a real upset.

At Gretna, as with Sheridan, honesty was just a veneer. And Gretna paid the price for living their dream when lying to others, and for believing they were bigger than they were and could take on the establishment. And Gretna were sent down and went out of business. But I’ll stop the analogies there.

What I will tell you is that both he and I were columnists together at the Scottish Mirror a few years back. On one particular day he asked to borrow one of my books, How To Get Three In A Bed.
A few weeks later he returned it. “Not what I was expecting,” he said, to which I replied; “I was surprised you wanted to read a book written by Eric Bristow in the first place …”

Tommy left court last night but realised he’d forgotten something. He walked back in to find the cleaning lady bending over while dusting the judge’s chair. “I’m here for my holdall,” to which the wummin replies “d’ye no think yer in enough trouble already Tommy!”‘

Ho, ho, ho and a Merry Christmas …