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Rob Harley

Edinburgh Rugby celebrates a win over Treviso
(Picture from Facebook)

by Hamish Macdonell

Niko Matawalu is a match-winner. There is no doubt about that. Glasgow’s run to the play-offs last year would probably not have been achieved without the little Fijian scrum half. But he is also a liability (and I’m not talking here about any allegations about biting or anything like that).

Niko Matawalu  (from Twitter)

Niko Matawalu
(from Twitter)

Glasgow’s 13-6 loss to Munster last Friday was a game they could – and should – have won and one of the main reasons they didn’t win was Matawalu.

The first crucial point came early in the second half when Munster were reduced to 14 men when James Cronin, the Irish prop, was penalised for blatantly killing the ball on his own line. Glasgow were given a penalty right on the Munster try line and the game was there for the taking. Munster were leading by 13-6 at the time and Chris Cusiter, the Glasgow captain decided to go for the scrum. It was a rational enough decision but the sensible move in such a tight game was to go for the posts and take the easy three points. Glasgow came away from that scrum without any points and, indeed, didn’t get any more during the rest of the time that Cronin was off the field or, for that matter, for the rest of that night.

It was a very tight game and on two further occasions Glasgow were given penalties in eminently kickable positions. On both of these occasions Matawalu decided to run rather than take the points. Twice he took the penalties quickly and headed off towards the Munster line and on both occasions he was caught and the ball was lost. That was nine points passed up in a tight game which Munster won by seven. Cusiter’s decision was excusable, Matawalu’s were not.

Matawalu’s decision to run everything works occasionally and, when it does, it looks brilliant. But it is only really useful if Glasgow are chasing the game and need a game-breaking try. On Friday, Glasgow needed points to eat into the Munster lead in what was always going to be a close game.

Glasgow warriors logoBut not all of the blame can be laid at the Fijian’s door. Part must be directed at coach Gregor Townsend and what seemed to be a panicky substitution strategy. He replaced Cusiter, who was doing well leading a solid, attritional game plan, on 55 minutes, and then he virtually emptied the entire Glasgow bench over the following couple of minutes in what appeared a desperate move to change the game plan and alter the pace of the match. There was no need to do that, Glasgow were gaining control and Townsend could have kept that tactic back for the last 15 or ten minutes when he really needed something different.

Friday’s match was comfortably Glasgow’s worst home performance for months and the result was that the Warriors were knocked off the top of the table – and deservedly so.

However, the Glasgow side are heading into a difficult spell. The autumn internationals coming up and Glasgow are set to lose at least a full XV to the national squad. As a result, this is the time for the overseas players at the club to step up – something Matawalu may find it hard to do if, as is possible, he ends up being banned for months by the citing commissioner.

edinburgh rugby logoAs for Edinburgh, Friday night’s game against Treviso was positive – at least in part. Edinburgh won 20-13, which lifted the capital side off the bottom of the table. But it has to be said that Treviso were pretty poor. Not only that but Edinburgh had so much possession, at least in the first half, that they should have had the four-try bonus point in the bag before the changeover. It was to Edinburgh’s discredit that they failed to put any distance between themselves and their Italian opponents and then let Treviso in with an easy try to throw the game into the balance with ten minutes to go.

One great breenge by David Denton set up Willem Nel to barge over and the game was won but it was tighter and more tense than it should have been.

Edinburgh’s cause wasn’t helped by Greig Laidlaw having his worst game for some time. He threw one wayward pass behind fly half Harry Leonard, he tossed another into the hands of a Treviso player that almost led to a try and he knocked on over the try line. Matt Scott was another to underperform. Scott is a great runner but he appears to believe he can break through every time. He would be better advised to pass more often and try to break the line less frequently. If Laidlaw and Scott tick, so do Edinburgh but, with both of them out of sorts, the team suffer too.

Edinburgh's David Denton

Edinburgh’s David Denton

At least Denton appears back to his rampaging best and Greig Tonks has the confidence to run hard from deep and he is confident enough under a high ball that he must be in with at least a chance of starting for Scotland in at least one of this autumn’s internationals. The worst aspect of Friday’s match at Murrayfield, however, was the sight of Tim Visser in agony on the pitch before being stretchered off. His loss will affect Scotland and Edinburgh and, with Stuart Hogg also out for most of November, the national back three – which was looking so good just 12 months ago – is now very shaky indeed.

It seems likely that Scott Johnson won’t pick his number one team for the Japan game on November 9 but will keep his heaviest forwards, at least, back for the Springboks game a week later. His best team, at the moment, would appear to be the following and this should be the one that gets a run out against South Africa, with a whole second string available for the Japan game a week earlier.

    Potential XV to play the Springboks on Nov 17:
    Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Alistair Strokosch,
    Kelly Brown, David Denton, Greig Laidlaw, Max Evans, Ruaridh Jackson, Matt Scott,
    Nick de Luca, Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland.
    Subs: Alistair Dickinson, Pat McArthur, Moray Low, Al Kellogg,
    John Barclay, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Taylor.

    Potential XV to play Japan on Nov 9:
    Alistair Dickinson, Pat McArthur, Moray Low, Al Kellogg, Grant Gilchrist, Rob Harley,
    Blair Cowan, Johnnie Beattie, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Weir, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar,
    Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor, Greig Tonks.
    Subs: Geoff Cross, Scott Lawson, Jon Welsh, Tim Swinson, Kieran Low,
    Henry Pyrgos, Jack Cuthbert.

Ruaridh Jackson kicks for goal

Why are Glasgow Warriors so good and Edinburgh so bad?
By Hamish Macdonell

THE stats speak for themselves: Glasgow – played four won four, top of the league, and selling out every home game. Edinburgh – played four, won one, bottom of the league, struggling with poor attendances, low morale and plummeting confidence.

Glasgow warriors logoGlasgow’s win on Friday night was impressive, not just because the team won again away from home but in the tries they scored: they were sharp, clinical and well delivered. But the Warriors management know they should have left Italy with a bonus point as well, having scored three tries in the first hour. Not only could they not score the crucial fourth in the final quarter but actually managed to concede two in the process, the first Glasgow have let in all season.

This is actually part of the reason behind Glasgow’s success. The team is built on terrifically tenacious defence. There are other reasons for Glasgow’s success too. Head coach Gregor Townsend has amassed a really competitive squad and he seems to rotate everything, including his choice of kicker, to keep all the players keen and not entirely sure if they are the number one choice in their position or not. But Townsend has done more than that too. Anyone coaching grassroots rugby in Scotland will know of the SRU’s key themes and, apparently, Townsend was behind this too, deciding what the core aims of rugby coaching should be (for instance placement of the ball after the tackle) and moving to get it inculcated right through rugby in Scotland from the minis up.

It is now clear that Townsend has a vision of how modern rugby should be played and Glasgow are doing it, and doing it well. It does involve solid defence but it also involves terrific work at the ruck, both in possession and in opposition.

A classic feature of Glasgow’s play for the last two seasons has been the team’s ability to really contest opposition ruck ball. Often this involves counter rucking, hard and fast, to sweep the opposition back and give them, at best, poor back-foot ball. Glasgow have a good combination of fiery, front-foot forwards, like Josh Strauss and Rob Harley and speedy backs like DTH Van der Merwe and Stuart Hogg. But, if the victory on Friday can be attributed to the contribution of one man, it would be Sean Maitland.

Maitland doesn’t score nearly as many tries as other back three players but he has such fabulous control over the basic skills that he sets up so many. The two he set up on Friday exemplified this.

For the first, he took a terrific line outside the ten channel, not to get the ball from Ruaridh Jackson at fly half but to get the inside ball from Alex Dunbar at 12. His speed took him clear and, with just the full back to beat, many others would have backed themselves to get to the line but not Maitland, he just drew the fullback and put in an inch perfect pass to Byron McGuigan who scored.

For the second, again Maitland found himself through the line but this time he had two defenders in front of him so he put through a delightful grubber – while going at speed – which sat up nicely for McGuigan to score once again.

Maitland is a great addition to Glasgow’s squad and an example of how wisely Glasgow have invested in talent, far better, it must be said, than Edinburgh.

edinburgh rugby logoEdinburgh under Alan Solomons have decided to try to become solid, defensive and, it has to be said, boring. Being boring and winning is one thing but being boring and losing is quite another. Unfortunately, that is where Edinburgh are at the moment. The game plan seems to be: if you have the ball in your own half, kick it away and wait for the opposition to make a mistake. Then, only run it if you are in the opposition 22. Otherwise, rely on South African brute strength over guile. It might work in the long run but it sure isn’t working yet.

There have been times, and Friday’s night’s loss to the Scarlets showed this several times, when Edinburgh could have run the ball from their own 22. Indeed, they may well have had an overlap to exploit and certainly had the players to do it, but they kicked away the ball, possession and the attacking opportunity.

It’s always worth looking at how the best in the world do it. The All Blacks always play heads up rugby, knowing that an overlap in your own 22 can be just as effective as an overlap in your opponent’s 22: if it’s on, they take it. Glasgow have the confidence to do that: Edinburgh do not.

Edinburgh’s lack of options in the back line is becoming more than a concern: it is becoming the beginning of a crisis. Edinburgh’s lack of fly half options is made almost laughable by the embarrassment of riches that Glasgow have at ten and, instead of bringing in more and more bulky South African forwards, perhaps Solomans would be better employed scouring the world for a decent ten, preferably Scottish qualified.

So it really is a tale of two cities. Glasgow sit on top of the league and are playing very well indeed. Edinburgh are at the bottom and deserve to be there. It would so much better for Scottish rugby if both teams were competitive but that seems unlikely to happen soon. Maybe Edinburgh will improve when Matt Scott comes back at 12, Greig Laidlaw comes back at either nine or ten and Tim Visser is back at 11. But none of them will be able to exert the influence they have done in the past unless Edinburgh relax their rigid game plan.

It hasn’t worked so far and, if it doesn’t start working soon, they will have no option but to ditch it and try something else – and imitating Glasgow might not be a bad place to start.

Scotland in action in the IRB Junior World Championship in June

Scotland in action in the IRB Junior World Championship in June

What do these figures mean: 22, 20, 20, 20, 12, 15 and 4? They are the number of tries Scotland have scored at successive Rugby World Cups, starting with 1987 and ending with 2011.

Apart from the blip in 2007 – when Scotland played their relatively easy pool games at Murrayfield – the trend has been relentlessly downwards.

However, the figure of 20 for the 1991 World Cup is particularly instructive because that year Scotland topped the try-scoring league, beating New Zealand’s 19-try effort into second place.

That’s worth repeating given what has happened this year: in 1991, according to the official RWC website, Scotland topped the try-scoring league with 20 tries in the world cup. At that same competition, Scotland’s semi-final opponents England scored just 11 tries, with Wales touching down just three times in the whole competition.

Wales failed to get out of the group stages in 1991 – and, 20 years later, Scotland have followed that same, well-worn and depressing path.

OK, that’s the problem – but what’s the solution? Once again, the Welsh have shown the way.

The answer, at least in part, is Mark Bennett. The Ayrshire teenager will not solve Scotland’s whitewash fever on his own, but his story is a salutary lesson for the failings in Scottish rugby.

The 18-year-old is, without doubt, the best centre Scotland has produced since Alan Tait. He shone at the Junior World Championship in June. He is strong and hard in the tackle, he has pace, a good step and a very good pass – oh, and he has been snapped up by the top French side Clermont Auvergne.

Bringing Bennett into the side would not have turned Scotland into world-beaters, but it would have shown a willingness to take chances with exciting young players, an attitude Scotland still don’t seem to want to adopt.

Look at the current Welsh side which has burned its way into the quarter-finals by destroying Fiji. A third of the 30-man squad is aged 23 or under. New star centre Scott Williams is 21, wing sensation George North is still a teenager, there are two 21-year-old scrum-halves in the squad – while Leigh Halfpenny, who seems to have been around forever, is still only 22.

In Wales, they really do believe that, if you good enough you are old enough.

In Scotland, we seem frightened to experiment with youngsters in case they get destroyed by the experience of playing Test rugby – but, being cautious and adopting a safety-first approach just isn’t working.

The Scotland team were combative at the Rugby World Cup, the pack was great, but the real rub came in a reported comment from the member of the coaching staff of another team there. “We know Scotland will play with real passion,” he said, “but they are easy to defend against.”

And that’s the nub of it. Unless and until we can find real game-breakers, Scotland will not challenge either the main rugby nations or the try-line.

Bennett might have struggled with the pace at the Rugby World Cup, but we’ll never know because he wasn’t even considered for the squad, let alone considered for a starting spot.

Andy Robinson has a solid scrum, but he has to find better backs. As a result, he should bring Bennett into the squad now.

Robinson should also bring in Glasgow’s Duncan Weir to challenge Ruaridh Jackson for the fly-half’s role (it is simply mind-boggling that our two best fly-halves are competing for game time in the same pro team, but that’s another story).

Some experts believe Jackson is the better of the two, while others believe Weir has more to offer. What is certain is that Weir has the attitude of a winner. He has style, guts and can score cracking tries as well as land penalties from within his own half – and he is only 20.

He appears to be another youngster who the SRU and Robinson believe is not old enough – but had he been Welsh…

Our current favoured number 12, Graeme Morrison, has been a great servant to Scottish rugby and a defensive rock, but he is easy to defend against, he does make mistakes and his passing – by international standards – is ordinary.

When he finally got exasperated at Morrison’s failure to release the Scots back-line, Robinson had no option but to turn to a winger, Sean Lamont, in the hope of producing some momentum. Lamont will run all day for Scotland, but delivering the perfectly weighted pass to his outside runners is not his forté.

Robinson had no option because he didn’t really have another number 12 in the squad. Bennett could have been that man.

Up front, Robinson should keep the bulk of his pack – but perhaps bring in Rob Harley and David Denton to add bite to the back row – and he must start building his backs around some of these promising youngsters.

Brian O’Driscoll, possibly the best centre ever to have played the game, was capped at 20 by Ireland – much the same age as Bennett is now.

Bennett may or may not end up being half as good (or better) than O’Driscoll, but why wait? The Rugby World Cup is over for Scotland. The team were home before the quarter-finals for the first time.

We should learn from our Celtic cousins – and, when we find really good youngsters, we should not be frightened of blooding them in the Test arena.

The back line I would like see play for Scotland in the Six Nations would be: Chris Cusiter and Weir at half-backs, Bennett and Joe Ansbro in the centres, Max Evans and Tim Visser (if he has qualified for Scotland in time) on the wings, and Rory Lamont at full-back.

Just think back to those historic victories recorded by Robinson’s team, the very victories which have been used as a justification this week by some to insist that Scotland are, really, a good rugby side.

But what happened in those games? Yes, Scotland beat Australia in 2009 – and how many tries to the team score? None. Yes, Scotland beat South Africa in 2010 – and how many tries did they score? None.

It was the same in the defeats of England in 2006 and 2008 and the draw in 2010. All of Scotland’s points came from the boot.

The message is simple. Scotland can secure the odd, low-scoring victory over (almost) anyone in the world on those rare occasions when they can rack up more penalties and dropped goals than the opposition can score tries, but they will never be consistent, they will never be a real threat, until they can score tries.

The current crop can’t do it, so Andy Robinson, give some of our youngsters a turn – but don’t, please, coach all that youthful spark and creativity out of them while you’re doing it.

The final lesson from Wales is that this downward cycle does not have to be terminal. The Welsh scored only three tries and were dumped out of the 1991 World Cup at the pool stages.

Scotland have suffered the same fate 20 years later. But look where Wales are now, preparing for an eminently winnable quarter-final against Ireland with a youthful team playing exciting rugby. Indeed, this young team are only two games away from a world cup final appearance – if things go their way.

Let’s applaud the Welsh attitude in trusting in youth and do the same. It really is the only way out of this mess.

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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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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.