Allan Massie: Edinburgh patience won’t last

IT IS reasonable to suspend judgement on Edinburgh. The season, after all, is only three league matches old, and they did win the first of these. They have been missing some of their stars – Matt Scott, David Denton and, until this weekend, Grant Gilchrist.
Excuses for Edinburgh's poor form are wearing thin. Picture: Lisa FergusonExcuses for Edinburgh's poor form are wearing thin. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Excuses for Edinburgh's poor form are wearing thin. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

That said, there can’t be a pro club anywhere that hasn’t had players unavailable on account of injury. Glasgow, for example, were without Sean Maitland, Ryan Wilson, Al Kellock and Finn Russell, for the first three rounds of the league, and are now missing Jonny Gray, Josh Strauss and Niko Matawalu.

The comparison isn’t quite fair, because everyone knows that Glasgow have more strength in depth. Yet it is fair to ask why this should be the case.

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One thing is undeniable though. Edinburgh’s performance against the Ospreys was very bad indeed. It had one’s memory spinning back to the early days of professionalism and the Scottish-Welsh league when teams would regularly return from Wales humbled by a heavy defeat.

We were told after the Munster match that Edinburgh prided themselves on their defence; they conceded nine tries in Swansea. The Ospreys are a good team but they’re not Toulon or Saracens. A team with eight expensive imports in the starting line-up simply folded.

Let us hope they have bounced back against the Scarlets at Murrayfield by the time you read this.

They may well have done so. Their coach, Alan Solomons, has warned us that his team are still in the early stages of development. So one shouldn’t yet look for consistency in performance or results. One should add that the narrow loss to Connacht has looked a bit more excusable since Connacht went on to beat Leinster the following week.

Nevertheless Edinburgh’s supporters and Mr Solomons’ bosses at the SRU are not likely to be blessed with infinite patience.

Explanations of Edinburgh’s poor record last season, or excuses for it, no longer apply. The coach has brought in lots of players and discarded others who didn’t suit him. The pre-season preparation was – we are told – excellent. So, even if it’s still reasonable to suspend judgement, it’s also reasonable to look for a measure of success.

If Alan Solomons managed a Premiership football club in either England or Scotland, a performance and result like that one in Swansea would already have his employers expressing the sort of confidence in their manager that is usually followed in a couple of days by the delivery of a P45.

Happily, we do things a bit differently in rugby.

If Edinburgh are struggling to get out of a hole, Glasgow are flying high. They have gone down to Wales the last two weekends and returned with nine points.

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You never know what XV Gregor Townsend will put out on the field, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Now that Guinness Pro12 matches are on Sky, they are impressing even English commentators.

Their audacious off-loading game understandably attracts attention, but they are playing with a lot of variety.

A lot of teams now are so obsessed with keeping possession that they are reluctant to kick in attack. This is strange because the All Blacks do that frequently.

They recognise that they will sometimes lose possession as a result, but they also realise that it is much easier for the opposition to defend if it has no fear of the ball being put behind the defensive line stretched out across the field.

Likewise, if there isn’t much on, a New Zealand stand-off will often be content to kick for position. Few sides are really happy defending a line-out deep in their own 22. Field position is at least as important as possession.

Against the Dragons, Glasgow kicked very well in attack. Duncan Weir at stand-off had an excellent game, one of the best I’ve seen him play; his judgement of when to pass, when to run and when to kick could scarcely be faulted.

Peter Horne at inside centre used his left foot intelligently, and in the last quarter of the match Stuart Hogg three or four times kicked very adroitly to keep the Dragons pinned back deep in defence. Given that Hogg is such a dangerous runner, this intelligent kicking suggested that his judgement is improving. He also gave a beautifully-timed pass to put Tommy Seymour in for his try.

It’s too early to start speculating on Vern Cotter’s selections for the autumn internationals, but the sight of Hogg in such good form was very welcome. He endured a bit of a slump last season after the Lions tour, but if this is the year Hogg kicks on and matures, the outlook for Scotland will be that bit brighter.

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Competition for places is hotting up. But, as I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, Scotland won’t be winning matches consistently until more than half the team is so far ahead of the competition that they are in effect picking themselves.

One player who is getting into that position is Alex Dunbar, the only question being whether he is played at 12 or 13, and the answer to that probably depends on when Matt Scott is fit and in good form again. Unfortunately that won’t be until the Six Nations.