1872 CUP encounters are rarely carnivals of ambitious, attractive rugby, and don’t expect this weekend’s showdown between Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh at Scotstoun [kick-off 5.15pm on Saturday] to be any different, says away team head coach Richard Cockerill.
This is the third attempt to get this game played, after the originally scheduled date on 27th December was pushed back due to a Covid outbreak in the Glasgow squad, and last Friday’s match was called off less than a half hour before kick-off due to a frozen pitch.
And it is the only competitive rugby match going ahead in the UK this weekend following the suspension on Monday of both the Champions and Challenge Cups, while the English Premiership has decided not to reschedule any of its fixtures.
But Cockerill is adamant that neither his team nor the opposition has any obligation to put on a show for any neutral fans who might choose to tune in on Premier Sports.
Points for artistic merit count for nothing when you are chasing qualification for the Champions Cup next season, and although the all-weather surface at Scotstoun should allow for a quicker game than we saw when these same sides locked horns at Murrayfield on 2nd January, the likelihood is that we are in for another grim tussle.
“I’ve said it previously, if you want entertainment go to the theatre,” said Cockerill, after yesterday’s team announcement. “If you want a rugby match to be played like it should … rugby players play to win and we’ll be doing that tomorrow, and Glasgow will be doing the same.
“I’m not sure me and Danny [Wilson] could have a gentleman’s agreement where we say: ‘Don’t kick, let’s have a crack and wing it about, and whoever wins let’s share the points.’ That’s not how elite sport works.
“I think both sides will try to play when the opportunity arises but in big games involving teams that need points, generally it’s the team that makes the least mistakes and pounces on the others’ errors that wins the game. For us, it’s about league points and collecting as many as possible to get us up the conference table.”
Edinburgh are missing flanker Jamie Ritchie, who picked up a head knock on the training pitch, and hooker Stuart McInally, who strained his neck whilst doing weights. Cockerill says that neither internationalist is expected to be a long-term absentee, although there appears to be some uncertainty about the specifics of McInally’s injury. “He’s just had a reaction to doing weights and we’re not sure what the extent of that is at the moment,” conceded the coach.
The importance of Mata
Meanwhile, Cockerill continues to look to build a squad capable of being competitive in both the league and Europe next year, and insists that Fijian No8 Viliame Mata – who is out of contract at the end of the season – is much more than a luxury he would happily let go in order to free up some extra cash in his Covid-restricted budget.
“There’s a little to tidy up and finish off, that’s moving all the time really,” Cockerill explained. “We’re still seeing where the market ends up. People have come into the market later because of Covid effecting budgets and so on. The key for us is getting a good balance in our squad and making sure we stay as competitive as possible through the international windows.
“As you can imagine, Bill’s a pretty popular character around the world so, like a lot of our guys, we’re in discussions about what we can do for him to stay,” he added. “He’s not a luxury at all. The key is that anyone would be happy to have Bill in their team across European rugby, or even one of the Japanese teams.
“So, I’d be reluctant to let someone of Bill’s quality leave, because once he leaves, you’re never going to replace that quality and X-Factor.”
Cockerill rejected the suggestion that 29-year-old Mata is not quite the player he was in previous seasons.
“Bill was injured for a long time after the Bordeaux game at the end of last season and like most guys he takes a little bit if time to get back to his best,” he reasoned. “There was no pre-season to warm up into, so you come straight back into competitive games to get your form back.
“He’s just starting to get a bit more form and match fitness, but if you let Bill Mata go, or he leaves, then if you look around the world who do you replace him with of similar quality. If you look at Marcell Coetzee, who’s leaving Ulster, who do they replace him with? That’s what it’s like with Bill and us. He’s an important player for us, so it’s ongoing around that situation.”
Levelling the budgets
As for that long standing debate about whether Murrayfield is looser with the purse strings when dealing with Edinburgh or Glasgow, Cockerill insisted that there is no way his side has a privileged status.
“This season, Glasgow operate on a bigger budget,” he said. “Moving forward, I’m told those budgets will be the same.
“Look, we’re a good side that’s improved a huge amount in the last four years and I think we deserve to be funded as equally as the team down the road, it’s as simple as that,” he added. “Why would you fund Edinburgh any different to Glasgow?”
Meanwhile, Glasgow head coach Danny Wilson is hoping that Leone Nakarawa will be able to offer some glimpses of his world-class talent when he makes his much-anticipated return for Glasgow this evening – but has warned not to expect too much.
The 32-year-old will make his comeback off the bench after a knee injury. His last appearance for the club was 11 months ago.
“I’m certainly hoping for a few touches of magic,” said Wilson. “I think we can’t get too carried away – it’s been a long, long time since he’s played, and if you’ve been out of rugby for a long time, it takes a little time to get back into it, get your second wind, get used to the contacts.
“I’m just really pleased that stage one is about to happen – hopefully it does happen, that he takes part in this game and then stage by stage he’ll come back and hopefully he’ll be all the player that we’re hoping for. But I think we should be relatively patient, if I’m honest.”
While Nakarawa’s return is a boost, the loss of loose-head prop Oli Kebble with a ‘freak’ head knock in training leaves Wilson without three of his four senior loose-heads, meaning academy prospect Tom Lambert – a recruit from Australia for last year’s Under-20s Six Nations – is named in the match-day squad for the first time as bench cover for Aki Seiuli.
It is a far from ideal situation, but Wilson challenged the youngster to seize the opportunity which has been thrust upon him.
“He played really well in the Six Nations last year and put a bit of a marker down,” said Wilson. “At that level he scrummaged really well. It’s obviously a big step up from that to this.
“The unique situation this year is there hasn’t been any rugby in between – there’s no Super6 or anything for him to play in. But we’ve had a couple of internal games that he’s been involved in, and he’s done a load of scrum sessions and contact sessions, so he’s done plenty against first-team players.
“He’s a good lad, a good player, a really exciting one for the future. And I think like all young lads if he takes his opportunity that future could be on top of him quite quickly.
“We’ve done a lot of work on our scrum in training. We’re going up against one of the best scrummaging outfits out there and we didn’t function well in the last game.”
Lambert is one of three debutants in the squad. Another academy prospect in Ollie Smith is covering the back three and centre from the bench, while Rufus McLean starts on the wing. Stand-off Ross Thompson will be making his first start, having acquitted himself well as a late substitute a fortnight ago.