THERE will be no shortage of intriguing head-to-head battles token an eye on at BT Murrayfield this evening, when an Edinburgh team which is showing promising signs of revival after years in the doldrums and a Glasgow Warriors team which started this season like a runaway train before being exposed as not quite the finished article with some tough experiences in Europe in recent weeks, will lock horns in the first of three 1872 Cup clashes to be played this season.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these contests is in the middle of the front-row where Stuart McInally (Edinburgh’s captain for the day in the absence of Fraser McKenzie) takes on Fraser Brown (who has just signed a two-year contract extension with the Warriors, which will keep him at the club until at least May 2018).
The two players’ recent career trajectories could be taken as a metaphor for their respective clubs.
After years spent as a fairly peripheral figure for club and country, McInally has emerge as a key man in both set-ups in recent months. Boosted by the faith Richard Cockerill has shown him on a week-to-week basis, the 27-year-old has hit the sort of rich vein in form we always knew he was capable of, and was perhaps the player who emerged with most credit of all out of the national team’s recent November Test Series heroics.
Then there is Brown, who was the main man for Scotland just a few short months ago, but without doing very much wrong – bad luck with injury has been the key issue – he has suddenly found himself in a position where he is having to prove himself all over again.
It must be a frustrating situation for Brown to be in, but he has come through much worse – especially when his career appeared to be over after he was discarded by Edinburgh in 2011 after suffering a series of shoulder and neck injuries – and there is an equanimity about the player off the field which is in stark contrast to the ferocity he exhibits after stepping across the whitewash on match-days.
“It’ll be fun,” he replies with a wry smile, after being asked about the prospect of going head-to-head with the man currently in possession of that Scotland number two jersey which was so recently his own.
“I thought Stuart played really well in the autumn internationals. It was disappointing for me because I started the season with an ankle injury, and was on a slow road to recovery when I picked up a knee knock against Exeter which I wasn’t really expecting, and Stuart grasped his chance with both hands,” said Brown.
“When I was back involved during the last couple of weeks, the atmosphere around camp, and the tempo and style of play they were trying to execute, was brilliant. Stuart benefited from that because when you’re in a good environment and everyone’s playing well around you and you’re all pulling towards one common cause, it’s really easy for you to pull out performances.
“So, these next few games are going to be really good as a head-to-head.
“I always think it’s really dangerous when people come into these two games and say: ‘It’s selection on the line’. They are forgetting that there are another 28 games in the season. But it is a good challenge and it’ll be good to see where I am in terms of coming back to full fitness. I’m sure Stuart will want to see where he’s at.”
“I actually think we are quite similar in terms of the way we play and our skillset around the pitch – how well we fit into defensive systems and how we like to link up in attack. But you put yourself in a dangerous position if you try to plot things from other players’ perspective rather than just trying to concentrate on what you’re good at, and shoring up your basics of scrum and line-out.”
Brown is the third high profile player to put pen to paper with the Warriors this week – hot on the heels of Niko Matawalu and Jonny Gray – as they set about proving that the departure of Finn Russell is not going to set a trend which will permeate through the team. According to the 28-times capped hooker, it was not a hard decision to commit the next two years to the club which offered him a way back into the professional game four years ago.
“I wanted to stay here. I’m very happy with the rugby, and it’s been really good working with the new coaching set-up at the start of the year. Jen, my fiancé, and I talked at the beginning of the year about how we wanted to stay here and it’s just been about getting things right to make that possible,’ he explained.
“We’ve got a really good set-up here which combines with the set-up at the national team in terms of how well guys are looked after and how the season is planned out for us to limit the number of games we play.
“I feel I’m in pretty good nick these days compared to where I was six or seven years ago. I enjoy this club so much and I appreciate not just Gregor and the coaches that were here before, but how much the club did for my rugby career, and how much it did for my personal life. That’s a big reason why I wanted to stay because I do genuinely love this club and the guys who work here and the guys that I play with. Jen gets on really well and loves all the other families and the girls.”
Brown flashes a mischievous grin when asked if Russell’s departure had given him pause for thought.
“Yeah, I’d love to be getting paid what Finn’s getting paid,” he quipped. “It’s different situations, Finn wants to go and challenge himself somewhere else in France, which is brilliant for him, and I don’t think you would find many people here who don’t want to go and challenge themselves somewhere else at some point in their career. For me, where I am just now, I wanted to stay in Glasgow. I wanted to challenge myself here, win games here and win trophies here.”
After their European disappointments, tonight’s match is a big opportunity for Brown and his club to prove that this faith in the Warriors’ potential is well placed.