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Ospreys

The Scottish Wildlife Trust was founded in 1964 by Sir Charles Connell, an Edinburgh lawyer and keen ornithologist. He brought together a small team of experts and enthusiasts who were inspired by the wildlife trust movement already under way in England. Within two years it had started a network of local groups and acquired its first reserve, a small woodland in Ayrshire. Since then it has grown to become one of the major environmental organisations in Scotland with 120 reserves, 35,000 members, a staff of about 100, 20 local groups and over a thousand working volunteers.

Puffin on Handa

Puffin on Handa

Most of its reserves are small patches of woodland, marsh, bog or moor, close to where people live, so that wildlife and human life are not seen as opposites but as part of the same natural world.

But the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) also has some large and spectacular reserves – the Loch of Lowes with its famous ospreys, the Falls of Clyde with its peregrines, the Montrose Basin for migrating geese and the isles of Eigg and Handa on the west coast.

This year the Trust is also celebrating the first five years of two important wildlife projects. It has re-introduced native beavers to Scotland after an absence of 400 years. There are now 15 beavers living wild in Knapdale in Argyll, the subject of an experiment to see what effect they will have on the local environment.

SWT LogoThe SWT has also been heavily involved in the fight to save the red squirrel and there are signs that this native species is holding out well against the grey invaders in the marginal lands of the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and South Ayrshire and in the more northerly battlegrounds of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

The Trust has also branched out into wider campaigns to save Scotland’s landscape and marine environment. Its “Living Landscape ” project in Coigach and Assynt has recently won a £100,000 lottery grant to plant trees, restore bog and moorland and create footpaths. The idea is to link wildlife territories across a large and diverse area of the countryside. It’s also been campaigning hard to have marine protected areas established around Scotland’s coast.

Rabbit in AssyntSWT volunteers were recently invited to a reception in the Scottish Parliament, acknowledging their role in campaigning and working for the environment.

Along with the other conservation organisations – RSPB, WWF, John Muir Trust, Friends of the Earth – the Wildlife Trust has been influential in driving Scotland’s environmental agenda.

Its chief executive for the last ten years, Simon Milne, is a well known figure on the environmental landscape and has established the SWT as one of Scotland’s most respected institutions. He now goes on to the prestigious post of Regius Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

His successor as chief executive is Jonathan Hughes who began as a ranger on the SWT reserve at Loch Fleet in the 1990s. Since 2009 he’s been the Trust’s director of conservation. He takes over with this disturbing thought in the latest edition of the Trust’s magazine:

“ We have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. We are living through an era of profound changes to the planet’s biosphere, changes which are happening almost entirely due to the influence of human activity. It is within this context that the Trust faces its next 50 years.”

For details of your nearest SWT reserve: www.scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk

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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Tim Visser, with Chris Paterson and Alex Grove

Tim Visser, with Chris Paterson and Alex Grove

Edinburgh’s Magners League match against Italian side Aironi on Friday night was, in league terms, a dead rubber. In a league without relegation, a contest between the bottom team and the team just four places above it is pretty well meaningless.

As a result, only 1,500 people turned up at Murrayfield – but those who did make the effort saw Edinburgh recapture the sort of form they showed to dispose of the Ospreys in their last home match. They played in a way that, had they done so earlier in the season, would surely have seen them compete for a playoff spot.

Tim Visser’s first-half try was worth the entry fee on its own. The big Dutch winger took his opposite number on the outside, then beat two more defenders with a sidestep on the inside. In doing so, he scored his 13th try of the season – a Magners League record.

Visser was the league’s top scorer last year with ten tries and, although there are four more games this season than last, his 13 tries so far (with two more games to go) show that he is, without doubt, the best finisher in the league.

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Visser also pulled off three try-saving tackles, keeping the Italians out of the game when they could have crept back in contention. Visser is worth as much to the capital side as Todd Blackadder was a few years ago: it is just a shame he has to wait so long for his residency qualifications to enable him to play for Scotland.

However, as far as the man-of-the-match award was concerned, Visser was eclipsed by David Denton, the 21-year-old Edinburgh number eight.

Denton was immense. Time and again he took the ball into contact against a heavyweight and experienced Italian pack and each time he made ground, often considerable ground. He was big and powerful and did what sides need their number eights to do – take the ball up the middle of the park in a no-nonsense, aggressive way.

It was gratifying to see a young Scottish player of such raw power and drive – but, again, Denton isn’t actually Scottish. Born in Zimbabwe and schooled in South Africa, he qualifies to play for Scotland through his mother and already looks a very promising prospect.

Nick de Luca was another to shine on Friday night. For once, he managed to combine the silky touches and sidesteps Edinburgh fans know he is capable of with a previously unheralded aggression. De Luca has long been a player who has flattered to deceive. He certainly possesses all the skills to become an international centre, but has never really made the transition from good club player to Scotland star.

He performance on Friday, though, when he looked hungrier for the ball than for years, suggests that something has clicked. Maybe his try for Scotland against Italy has given him the appetite for more, maybe the return of Graeme Morrison for Glasgow has focused his mind – or maybe Nick Scrivener, the Edinburgh coach, just gave him a kick up the backside. Whatever it was, it seems to have worked and De Luca was excellent against Aironi.

A few more performances like that and he will play himself into Andy Robinson’s starting XV for the world cup.

However, for all the encouraging signs from these players, there was also enough to worry Edinburgh fans ahead of next season. The first try was scored by Fraser Mackenzie, a lock playing at flanker. He has been Edinburgh’s most improved player this season but he won’t be at Murrayfield next year. He has signed for Sale Sharks instead.

Scott MacLeod was the pick of the locks. His lineout work was excellent, as was his performance in the loose. He won’t be in Edinburgh next season either, having decided to pursue his career in Japan.

Greig Laidlaw again played well at fly-half, but his departure to the sin bin in the first half revealed an acute lack of depth there. Indeed, Edinburgh must be the only professional side in the world at the moment to routinely go into full-on league games without a recognised fly-half in their squad.

Laidlaw is a scrum-half deputising as a fly-half and, although he is doing well, he is having to learn on the job. Phil Godman has been out all season. David Blair has all but retired from top-flight rugby, Alex Blair has been injured for much of the season, Chris Paterson hasn’t really had a run of games at ten since his Gala days and Rory Hutton – the only other potential fly-half to play for Edinburgh in the last couple of years – was let go at the end of last season.

As a result, when Laidlaw was in the bin last week, winger Simon Webster had to deputise as first receiver. Webster is a out-and-out winger and in no way is he a fly-half.

It does seem incredible that Edinburgh can make do with such a patched-up approach, but it perhaps an indication of the team’s hopeless position in the league, without a chance of making the playoffs, and the lack of relegation, that has brought this about.

Those very same factors inevitably conspired to push the attendance down to a paltry 1,565 on Friday, which is a shame. There was really good rugby on offer, the crowd saw four good tries and an open, fast game packed with incident.

How different it would be had Edinburgh actually being pushing for a playoff spot. A few more wins earlier in the season and they could have been up there with the Irish provinces. Friday night’s crowd would have been bigger, the team would have been on a roll and everything would have looked brighter.

One can only hope Edinburgh learn from this season and don’t make the same mistakes next year.

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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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Richie Gray, Scotland versus France <em>Picture: AP Photo/Michel Spingler</em>

Richie Gray, Scotland versus France Picture: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

After Nikki Walker had done his best traffic-policeman act and waved Andrea Massi through for Italy’s first-half try at Murrayfield yesterday, a friend turned to me and suggested that the Ospreys winger shouldn’t play for Scotland again, ever – particularly as this error was a virtual repeat of a similar offence against Wales.

“Ah, but you wait,” I replied. “He’ll score the match-winning try. Bound to.” And that is exactly what happened.

Walker’s inconsistency represents something of template for Scotland’s problems. He took some really good lines yesterday and ran hard and straight through gaps, causing the Italian defence so many difficulties that his try was almost inevitable.

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But his defence was also woeful, not just once but on many occasions. Massi’s try was just the one time that Italy managed to take advantage of Walker’s profligacy. Time and again in the first half the Italians targeted the soft right-hand side of the Scottish line, because they knew that Walker would either be out of position or he would hesitate over which man to mark and would allow the opposition to make line-breaks.

Now consider how Scotland have been this season – maddeningly inconsistent. They attacked with real purpose and skill in Paris, scoring more tries at the Stade de France than they have since 1999, but their defence was all over the place.

Scotland also played better at Twickenham than they have for years, staying in the hunt for an unlikely victory until the final quarter and only then being beaten on penalties, drawing the try-count one-all.

They were good, too, in patches, against the Italians yesterday – and if we took those three games, the French, the English and the Italian matches, all three were pretty much what we hoped from Scotland before this tournament started: combative and close defeats to the big guns away from home and a solid victory over the Italians at home.

The real aberrations came in the Welsh and Irish games. These were at Murrayfield, yet Scotland failed to score a single try and lost both games. The nadir was reached in the Welsh match when the Welsh were reduced to 13 men and still Scotland couldn’t fashion a try.

The end result of four losses and one win was not what was expected of a side which had beaten the Springboks in the autumn, the Australians the autumn before that and had beaten Argentina 2–0 away from home last summer – but it represents a fair reflection of Scotland’s standing in the game and the way the team played.

The first, biggest and most surprising area of failure was the set scrum. The Scottish scrum was dismantled wholesale by the French, a development which arguably handed the game to the home side. It struggled again against the Welsh and Irish scrums – which was even more worrying because Scotland should have at least secured parity if not outright dominance up front against these two sides – and it was under tremendous pressure against the English.

Only in yesterday’s game against a pack which was supposedly one of the best in the championship did Scotland look anything like being on top.

By the time Scotland took the field against the Italians, Andy Robinson was on his third-choice tighthead prop. Euan Murray started against France and Wales, Moray Low started against England and Ireland and both props struggled. Geoff Cross, who started against Italy, seemed to perform the best of all, which is worrying for Murray and also for Low, neither of whom can now guarantee their place on the plane to New Zealand for the World Cup.

Then there was the line-out, another supposed area of strength for Scotland. The line-out collapsed against England but was brilliant yesterday against Italy. The difference was that Scotland’s problems against England all came from Ross Ford’s poor throwing-in, and the Italy game showcased just what exceptional snaffling locks Richie Gray and Al Kellock have become on opposition ball.

Given that Scotland seemed able to win opposition ball at will but still have problems on their own throw, it was a wonder that they did not choose to kick the ball out more often yesterday.

This, though, was the not the game plan executed by Ruaridh Jackson at no.10. Jackson kicked frequently yesterday, and more frequently than he really should have. For the first ten minutes, Scotland ran everything and looked a really good and dangerous team. Twice they came within a whisker of scoring tries and had to settle for penalty kicks at goal instead.

Then, as the game settled down, Scotland started kicking the ball back to the Italians, giving their opponents the opportunity to run the ball back – and, in doing so, they let the Italians back in the game.

This, in essence, has been Scotland’s problem all through this championship. They have kicked too often, too poorly and, in doing so, they have surrendered hard-won possession too easily.

Jackson’s kicking in the Ireland game marked the worst of this tendency, but Dan Parks was also at fault in this regard when he has been on the pitch.

Yesterday’s win was gratifying and deserved but it did leave many supporters with the feeling of frustration. If only Scotland had got the win in early and created the sort of momentum which is vital to any successful Six Nations campaign.

Nick de Luca and Walker took their tries well. Nathan Hines off-loaded well to set up de Luca for the try, although he still does not totally impress as a no.6 – some of his tackling was a little wayward and off the pace yesterday.

Sean Lamont was as good as ever in attack and defence, and although he is learning to offload better, that is still not the best part of his game.

Chris Paterson is back to his defensive best, and while he does not have the pace he used to have to stretch defences, he works so well with Jackson as an alternative stand-off half that he should be considered the first-choice full-back for the World Cup (particularly as Hugo Southwell was so dire in the Welsh game that he doesn’t really deserve another chance).

Four losses from five games is not the return anyone north of the border wanted, and few expected. There is no getting away from the fact that this has, yet again, been a poor campaign. Tries are still at a premium, particularly at home, which in itself reveals a worrying lack of cutting edge.

But there are positives. The side is now considerably better than it was at the start of the championship. Cross is the best tight-head we have available. Richie Gray emerged as the best new forward in the whole tournament (possibly vying with Ireland’s Sean O’Brien for that honour), while, in Jackson, Scotland may have unearthed the man who will control the games in the World Cup from no.10.

But there are still players who have to prove they can step up to the mark, foremost among them Ross Ford. The Edinburgh man has been groomed and shaped to be Scotland’s first-choice hooker for so long that it seems inconceivable that he would be dropped. But unless he improves his throwing in, he will have to be replaced by someone who can hit his jumpers – every time.

There is also a worrying lack of pace on the wings. Without Max Evans, as was the case yesterday, and with Simon Danielli on one wing and Walker on the other, Scotland lacked the sort of pace that will be needed to take advantage of line-breaks against the very best defences in world rugby.

Overall, though, Robinson will head into the World Cup warm-up games with a better idea of who his best performers are – but aware that once again, as a whole, the team have failed to meet expectations.

He knows, and they know, they can’t afford to do that again. If they do that in New Zealand, they will be on an early flight home and Scotland’s proud record of qualifying for the quarter-finals of every World Cup will have gone.

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Edinburgh lost last Saturday night to the Ospreys, going down 33-16 on a cold night in Swansea. Let’s get that out of the way first. Edinburgh lost and deserved to lose. They were second best in key areas and didn’t play well enough to merit a win.

But just because they didn’t do enough to win the game, it doesn’t mean Edinburgh fans don’t have the right to criticise an extraordinarily poor performance by the referee which was so bad it gave the Ospreys a points cushion that enabled them to go on and win the game comfortably.

Even if the referee had been better, there is nothing to say Edinburgh would have gone on and won the game but, equally, just because they were beaten by a better team doesn’t mean they can’t gripe – with considerable justification.

This was a Welsh home game refereed by a Welshman with two Welsh touch judges. The weather had prevented Irishman Alain Rolland from getting to the game so James Jones took over as referee.

That could have gone either way. He could have been so careful of not being accused of being biased that he could actually have favoured the Scots subconsciously. Alternatively, he could have penalised the Scots because he was more used to the way the Ospreys play the game.

This was unfortunately how it turned out. Jones penalised Edinburgh time and again. He pinged the Scots umpteen times in the first 20 minutes for holding on in the tackle, so many times in fact that the Ospreys almost had the game won in that first quarter having converted five of these first half kicks at goal.

That was understandable and it was clear that Edinburgh weren’t playing the game to the liking of the referee in the way the Ospreys were and they had to adapt.

But that was only the start. Jones penalised the Scots for delaying the throw in at the lineout, for engaging too quickly in the scrum and for not retreating behind their own kicker after a kick ahead.

Now, a team can think itself unlucky if it gets pinged for one of these technical infringements in a game – particularly not retreating because every player in every team in the world now stands, hands above their head waiting for the kicker to pass them before they join in the game again, no-one actually retreats these days but Edinburgh were penalised for exactly that.

The worst, however, came 12 minutes into the first half when Edinburgh fullback Chris Paterson gathered the ball, kicked ahead and went to round Marty Holah, the Ospreys flanker.

Holah stuck his leg out, caught Paterson with his knee and felled him. It should have been an immediate penalty where the ball landed and at least a yellow card. It could, and probably should have been a straight red card after all, that was what Scott Murray received for a trip in Cardiff two years ago on Scotland duty and that was seen as the usual punishment for that sort of offence.

But, despite being only a few yards from the incident, Jones waved play on, Paterson was injured and was down on the field, leaving the Ospreys to attack and, as a direct result, secured a penalty which gave the Welshmen a 9-3 lead.

Paterson had to retire injured shortly afterwards and Holah stayed on.

An Irish referee like Rolland could have made such a bad call in a game like this and, had he done so, he would have been criticised – and rightly so. But Jones is a Welsh referee officiating at a home Welsh game. He was not necessarily biased, but the mistakes he made definitely favoured the home team while he was pernickety in picking up and penalising every minor transgression committed by the Scots.

The problem is that, because he was a Welsh referee and the Welsh side was the beneficiary of some of his poor decision-making, he is opening himself open to claims of bias and giving the Scots a grievance – quite a legitimate one – about his handling of the game.

It was unfortunate that a Welsh referee had to handle this game and it will be unfortunate if it ever happens again.

Jones had a poor game. It happens to all referees. However, on this occasion, the context makes his performance even more debateable than usual.

As for the game itself, Edinburgh lost it in the tackle area. The Ospreys were better and faster to the ruck than their Scottish opponents. If they didn’t win the ball at the tackle, they drove over and disrupted Edinburgh ball until they did.

The one bright spot for Edinburgh was Tim Visser’s eighth try of the season. Given that he was the league’s top scorer last season with ten tries, Visser is already way ahead of that mark given that he has scored eight and Edinburgh are not even half way through the league season.

Netani Talei

Netani Talei

Scottish rugby supporters cannot really afford to be too picky. It is true that a win is a win is a win and this weekend’s Magners League games resulted in two Scottish wins. Edinburgh beat Treviso 21-9 at Murrayfield and Glasgow beat Aironi 33-8 at Firhill.

But the Edinburgh game, in particular, left supporters feeling let down. This was a home game against an Italian side new to the Magners League which had been shorn of most of its best players who were being rested ahead of the Italian national side’s match against the Pumas next week.

This was not just a game Edinburgh should have won, and won easily, it was a game they should have won with a four-try bonus point.

The problem was, not only did Edinburgh never really look like going for the four-try bonus point but they struggled so much they never really looked like scoring tries at all.

Edinburgh did actually score two tries. However, both were against the run of play. The first came after centre John Houston broke several weak Italian tackles and made a big break through the centre and it was finished off by number eight Netani Talei who burst through another three weak tackles to score.

The second was a burrow-over by prop Kyle Traynor but both were, pretty much, undeserved. Treviso dominated the first half in territory and possession. The Italians controlled the setpiece and were combative in the loose.

Their kicking from hand was better than Edinburgh and, on a evening of foul weather, they hung on to the ball better.

Yes, this was a win but it should have been so much more. This should have been the match when Edinburgh put this very limited Italian side to the sword and they never looked like doing it. In fact, they never looked like going for the third try, let alone the fourth.

It is hard to imagine the Magners League powerhouses like Munster or the Ospreys passing up a five-point opportunity like this.

Did anyone excel for Edinburgh? Talei, as usual, was immense. He has the fault of being occasionally greedy but he can be forgiven for that simply because he doesn’t get the support in attack he deserves.

Houston got the man-of-the-match award but only because he was the pick of a pretty dreadful backline.

The conundrum for Edinburgh coach Rob Moffat is that, at times, his side can play sublime rugby while at others it is ordinary or even downright terrible.

The problem stemmed from the half backs. Both Greig Laidlaw at scrum half and David Blair at fly half kicked atrociously from hand, kicking out on the full, only making ten or 15 metres at a time when going for touch and generally kicking the ball back to the Italians with an aimlessness that made the crowd groan.

The bottom line is that, if they continue to play like this, Edinburgh will end up knocked out of the Heineken Cup (they are almost there anyway) and will struggle around the bottom half of the Magners League. Crowds will drop off and we will be back to the depressing state of a few years ago.

The players are better than that, they have to start showing it consistently, though, or they will be in trouble.

The contrast with Glasgow was revealing. It was also a windswept and rainy night in Glasgow last Friday. The Warriors were also playing against an Italian side depleted of its stars yet Glasgow not only came away with then four-try bonus point, they deserved it too.

Glasgow attacked and attacked and attacked again, playing with momentum and enthusiasm despite the dreadful conditions and the ball-slowing tactics of their opponents.

Glasgow not only scored four tries, all through their outside backs (while, revealingly, Edinburgh score two through their forwards) but they could have had a sackload more. On numerous occasions, Glasgow broke through almost to the Aironi line only to be stopped by desperate foul play by their opponents. On most of these occasions, Glasgow’s fly half Duncan Weir kicked the points when really, they could have had seven-point scores.

The Glasgow play was quick, slick and accurate. Henry Pyrgos was good at scrum half (the best he has played all season), Weir was good at ten – although he did ignore one huge overlap in his own 22 and kicked away possession when it would have been better to run it – while the rest of the backs were lively, two-try Frederico Aranburu and Bernado Stortoni in particular.

Glasgow showed how to play against stuffy, limited opposition and coach Sean Lineen will hope that this weekend’s performance will provide the boost his team needs to start winning consistently and climb up the league table.

At the moment, there is only side in Scotland will any go-forward momentum – and it isn’t Edinburgh. Yes, Edinburgh were shorn of a host of stars on Friday night but the second-choice players should have been easily good enough to step up to the mark.

The Edinburgh-Glasgow derby games are approaching fast and, if Edinburgh don’t improve soon, they will end up losing both, just like last season. Those double wins in 2009-10 spurred Glasgow on to a play-off position and, although the Warriors are too far down in the league at the moment to see that as an immediate goal, there is no reason why they can’t expect the same again by the end of this season – they certainly deserve it given the way they are playing right now.

Natani Talei

Natani Talei

IT is not often that a player can score a hat-trick, not get the man-of-the-match award and not even emerge on the winning team but that was the end result for Scotland wing Nikki Walker after his Ospreys side went down 31-23 to Glasgow at Firhill this afternoon.

Walker has had to spend much of this season on the bench watching and waiting in frustration while Lions Shane Williams, Tommy Bowe and Lee Byrne got the coveted starting places for the Ospreys. Today, though, he got his chance and he took it gratefully. He scored two tries before half-time and one on the stroke of full-time.

His first showed his power, brushing off opposite number Rob Dewey with a hand-off that left the Glasgow winger grasping at air. For the second, he squeezed past Glasgow scrum-half Colin Gregor to touchdown superbly just before he was bundled into touch and, for the third, he angled his support run to take the ball and beat the Glasgow defence to score again.

Walker knew he had this one game to impress Scotland coach Andy Robinson and he certainly did that. Many of the Scotland places for the New Zealand game on November 13 are already inked in but there is one wing spot up for grabs due to Simon Danielli’s injury.

There are many in the game who think Walker is better than Danielli anyway but, on this form, Walker should be able to see off the competition from Edinburgh’s Jim Thompson and Chris Paterson as well.

The hat-trick was the only silver lining for the Ospreys who seemed to think they could turn up at Firhill and walk away with the points.

They led 13-11 at half time and Glasgow were struggling to get into the game. But then up stepped Richie Gray.

The big lock represents the second big positive for Robinson to come out of this match. Gray’s early second-half try was a gem. Indeed, it would have been a classy try for a centre, let alone a second-row forward. Gray took the ball at pace then dummied Mike Phillips with a show and go that left the Lions’ scrum half rooted to the spot.

After that, Gray was all over the park, popping up at first receiver, in the centres and on the wing. His passes were crisp and presented in front of the receiver, he defended well and was safe in the line out. If there is a better second row playing in Scotland or indeed, qualified to play for Scotland, then it is difficult to see who it might be.

He was rightly awarded the man-of-the-match award but close behind him was number eight Richie Vernon who scored the second try and was denied another by the video ref. With Jonnie Beattie injured, Vernon might also be timing his run to perfection with the sort of form that could take him, too, into the Scotland team for the All Blacks match.

Behind the scrum, Glasgow struggled. Fly half Ruaridh Jackson had a disappointing game, missing four of seven kicks at goal and found himself unable to assert himself against the Ospreys blitz defence. Glasgow did look better when Duncan Weir came on at ten, simply because Weir tends with a bit more urgency and a bit more attitude.

By that time, though, Glasgow were in the ascendant anyway. Weir was good but, when he came on, he was able to play on the front foot – a luxury Jackson never enjoyed.

It was an oddly two-paced game. The Ospreys dominated the first half and Glasgow gave away penalty after penalty and never found their rhythm. They upped the tempos after half time and blew the Ospreys away.

They found out that teams going forward are more likely to be the recipients of penalty decisions than those going backwards and so it proved. By the third quarter they had a strangle hold on the game – despite Jackson’s wayward kicking – and they never let up, scoring a final try through Kevin Tkachuk after sustained pressure on the Ospreys line.

Edinburgh’s 21-16 victory over Ulster was not nearly as clinical or as definite but the conditions were appalling at Murrayfield on Friday night. But, like Glasgow, Edinburgh weathered early first-half pressure and, indeed, were lucky to still within touching distance at half time.
Ulster decided to go for a try when an easy three points were there for the taking and they knocked on in the act of trying to cross the line.

Edinburgh took full advantage after the restart and Ulster hardly got a sniff of the Edinburgh line for the rest of the game. Edinburgh played with more urgency and the drive for momentum paid off during the key moment in the match.

Netani Talei came into the line at pace and with the acutest of angles, taking the pass from fly half David Blair and making the best part of 50 metres in a charge for the line.

Although it looked as though he had wasted the chance by not releasing Ross Rennie inside him and opting to go himself, only to held up short of the Ulster line, the ball came back and Talei was there to finish in the corner.

Edinburgh second row Fraser Mackenzie – surely the revelation of the season so far – scored for Edinburgh in the first half, converting second phase possession from an Edinburgh scrum in the shadow of the Ulster posts.

But this was a scrappy game and an ugly win – the second in a row for Edinburgh in the Magners League after their one-point away victory over Aironi. But the points matter and Edinburgh’s slow crawl up the Magners League table will be gratefully received in contrast to the beautiful play and no victories which have characterised their Heineken Cup campaign this year.

Robinson will have been delighted with the game at Firhill. Yes, Jackson’s form is a cause for concern but the positives from the excellent performances of Gray, Walker and, to a lesser extent Vernon, will more than make up for that.

He will have been less pleased by his visit to Murrayfield on Friday. Edinburgh are proving hard to beat and can grind out victories but, other than prop Alan Jacobsen, it is difficult to see which Edinburgh players on show on Friday will make the starting XV for the All Blacks’ match.

Lock Scott Macleod deserves a place on the bench, as does flanker Roddy Grant, centre Ben Cairns and full-back Chris Paterson but none of these players – or any others – pushed themselves up the reckoning the way their Glasgow counterparts did.

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<em>Picture: Éamonn</em>

Picture: Éamonn

ANYONE who followed the Magners League last year will remember how tight the finish was. It is likely to be the same again this year, probably going down to the last game of the season to decide who goes into the play-offs.

With that as the background, it is then obvious that home advantage could be crucial for that last fixture. With a win needed, a home fixture may be just the edge required to make that push to the play-offs.

So why is it, then that both Scottish teams are having to play away on the last day of the season – for the second year in succession? Surely, at least one of the teams should be playing at home on the final weekend?

When it happened last year, many Edinburgh and Glasgow fans grumbled, feeling that the SRU lacked the punch to make demands on its Irish and Welsh counterparts.
It won’t happen again, we thought. The SRU will make sure that, having been screwed once in the fixture list, it will not happen again.

Besides, we reasoned, the Scottish sides are no longer the poor relations in the Magners League. Not only have both sides become potential champions (play-off contenders at the very least) but the Italians are now involved and, surely, they don’t have the clout that the SRU does in the Magners League negotiations.

But no, it has happened again. When the fixture list for this coming season’s Magners League was announced yesterday, the Scottish sides were both given away fixtures on the last day of the season.

Two Irish sides have home fixtures (Leinster –again – and Munster, surprise, surprise) two Welsh teams, the Dragons and the Scarlets and the two Italian teams, Aironi and Benetton Treviso. Surely, it would have been more equitable to give two Welsh teams, two Irish teams, one Italian side and one Scottish side home advantage? The fairest solution of all would have been to give both Scottish sides home advantage as neither had it last season, but even half way to that would have been better than the current imbalance.

If it comes down to that last game and if Edinburgh and Glasgow or both lose out in the play-off race by a point or two that could easily have been picked up at home, then the SRU, or whoever is negotiating for the two Scottish sides in the Magners League, will only have themselves to blame. Oh, and the fans will blame them too.

I should stress at this point that this is purely the view of a disgruntled fan. I don’t know what happens in the strange conclave between the competing unions and how they divide up the fixtures. I, as with other fans, can only view the end result and, once again, it looks as if the Scottish teams got screwed.

There is one other glaring omission too. The English Premiership has pioneered the idea of opening day gala days, with two matches taking place at a single venue – Twickenham. The Magners League has enough sides for this to happen across three venues on the opening day.

Can you imagine the crowds who would turn up for these double headers? Blues against Ospreys and Dragons against Scarlets at the Millennium Stadium, Munster against Connacht and Leinster against Ulster at the new Aviva Stadium and Edinburgh v Treviso and Glasgow against Aironi at Murrayfield (alternating with Italy every other year).

Ok, so the Murrayfield crowds would be down a bit on the others but it would kick-start the new season and launch it in style.

The Magners League is the poor relation of Northern Hemisphere rugby, but it doesn’t have to be. It could innovate and get the crowds in from day one.
It is just a pity, however, that there will be no crowds in Scotland on the last day of the regular season…

<em>Picture: Éamonn</em>

Picture: Éamonn

Glasgow Warriors went down 20-5 to the Ospreys in Swansea in the Magners League semi final tonight, ending Scottish interest in the competition.

The Warriors fought hard but were beaten by a better team with more big-match players able to raise their game when it mattered in front of their home crowd.

A sense of the difference between the teams came at the end, when Glasgow had used all their substitutes and had a back line featuring Mark McMillan, Duncan Weir, Hefin O’Hare and Colin Shaw. They are all solid, good players but are also inexperienced at this level. When the Ospreys needed to make a change, they brought on seasoned internationals including Filo Tiatia and Nikki Walker.

In short, the Ospreys had more quality throughout their squad and it was two of their big-match players who turned the game, Shane Williams and James Hook.

Williams scored the only try of the first half, latching on to a loose ball just outside his own half and sprinting clear down the left wing to score.

One of his feet clearly shaved the touchline as he did so but the touch judge waved play on, giving the Ospreys a 7-0 half-time lead.

Glasgow came right back after the break with a try from hooker Fergus Thomson. The Ospreys won a lineout on their 22, but it was scrappily slapped back to Mike Phillips. McMillan pounced on it for Glasgow and fed Thomson who was in at the corner, but Parks failed to convert from wide out.

At 7-5 Glasgow were certainly in the game but the scoreline did not reflect the Ospreys dominance in most aspects of the game.

It then fell to another of the Ospreys stars to turn the game decisively in favour of the Welshmen.

Hook picked up the ball from the base of a ruck just outside the Glasgow 22, beat Al Kellock on the outside then chipped Colin Shaw with his left foot, rounded the Glasgow full back and scored a sumptuous try.

It was a moment of class, something Glasgow were unable to replicate. The Warriors tried hard, particularly in a frantic last 20 minutes when they threw everything at the Ospreys. They had several line breaks, but the final pass was either rushed or forced or the Ospreys were too quick to smother the attempt and the chance was lost.

The first half was hard and uncompromising, with lots of off-the-ball niggle. Glasgow prop Ed Kalman was lucky to escape a yellow card for one blatant body check on Shane Williams and players were being taken out on the fringes of almost every single ruck.

Much was expected of Dan Parks but the Glasgow stand-off had one of his quietest games for the club in a long time, missing two long range penalties and a difficult conversion to end up with 0-3 from the tee.

One penalty to touch with 15 minutes to go summed up his lack of confidence. It was an easy touch finder and it should have put Glasgow within five yards of the Ospreys line but Parks played it far too safe and Glasgow ended up at least 15 yards from the try line.

Openside John Barclay was exceptional in the Glasgow back row. He was everywhere and outshone former All Black Marty Holah, the Ospreys number seven.

Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown were not far behind and Thomson was superb in the loose, even if his throwing in at the lineout could have been better.

But Glasgow were beaten by the better team. The Ospreys had more class throughout their team and, playing at home, they had more than enough to dominate every aspect of the game.

They had more strength in depth, more experience and knew how to close out knock-out matches like this – experience that Glasgow did not have before tonight.

Glasgow would definitely have been in with more of a chance had they had home advantage but they will have to hope that the experienced gained by the younger, fringe players in their squad from tonight’s disappointment will help them get even further next year.

A semi final place is disappointing for the team which led the league for so much of the year but it is also a very, very creditable achievement for a side which has nothing like the resources, the support or the players that the other three semi finalists have.