REMEMBER those two initial responses when news broke back in August 2016 that Dave Rennie was joining Glasgow Warriors as head coach? The confusion at hearing a name which only the most committed rugby anorak on this side of the equator recognised soon gave way to a firm nod of approval when a Google search revealed the New Zealander’s track record, and his history as a rugby confidante of departing golden boy Gregor Townsend.
It was almost the opposite reaction a few months later when Richard Cockerill was named as Edinburgh’s next head coach. Instant recognition of an archetypal English bulldog was soon followed by bemusement that a character who had only ever operated in the millionaire clubs of Leicester Tigers [who sacked him] and Toulon [very briefly] was being handed control of one of Scotland’s two professional rugby enterprises.
One felt like a cool, calm and calculated appointment, the other like a panic buy following the Alan Solomons flop and the continued stagnation under an interim coaching team.
Memories are short in sport, especially when things are not going your way. There is an increasing sense of frustration visible amongst some of Warriors’ most committed supporters about a perceived east coast bias from Murrayfield, which provides a convenient scapegoat for the unfamiliar predicament their team has found itself in – playing for pride this weekend while their opponents are shooting for the stars.
The reality, as Cockerill is always quick to point out, is that Warriors continue to have a bigger budget and a deeper squad than Edinburgh. The Covid crisis has undoubtedly left them thin in some positions, most notably full-back, but they won’t get any sympathy from the man who has revolutionised the capital team’s fortunes.
“Glasgow moan about not having a full-back, they’ve got three 10s and plenty of full-backs as far as I can see,” Cockerill pointedly observed earlier today [Friday], when discussing the line-ups for this weekend’s match.
It is a fair point, if he hadn’t gone for Huw Jones at full-back this weekend then Danny Wilson (who inherited Glasgow from Rennie this summer with rather less fanfare) could have chosen from Glenn Bryce, Tommy Seymour, Rufus McLean or academy prospect Ollie Smith (who Wilson clearly likes the look of). Meanwhile, they have two established internationalists in Adam Hastings and Pete Horne at stand-off, and if all else fails they can go for Brandon Thomson, who is coming to the end of his third season at the club during which time he has made 24 appearances.
Meanwhile, along the M8, Blair Kinghorn is the only specialist full-back at the club, while the next cab off the rank at stand-off behind Jaco van der Walt is the novice Nathan Chamberlain, who impressed during the last Under-20s Six Nations but is totally inexperienced at this level (the coming season was meant to be his bedding in year before Jono Lance’s work visa fell through).
We could spend all day comparing and contrasting which specific players have come and gone in recent years and be no closer to drawing a definitive conclusion as to whether one team has been more indulged than the other. But how about these headline figures: since the summer of 2017, Edinburgh have brought in 42 players and let 52 go, while Glasgow Warriors have brought in 44 players and let 43 go.
Among those recruited by Warriors during that period are Huw Jones, Callum Gibbins, Oli Kebble, DTH van der Merwe and most recently Leone Nakarawa and Richie Gray. Those are some big names, with some pretty hefty pay-cheques. Edinburgh have, of course, also splashed the cash at times, with Matt Scott, John Barclay, Simon Hickey and Mark Bennett springing to mind as some of their more high-profile recruits. There really isn’t much in it.
Of course, the loss of Finn Russell, then Stuart Hogg, then Jonny Gray, in consecutive summers, is hard to swallow, but the last of those departures is surely offset by the return of big brother Richie. As for the other two, well, they weren’t ever going to be replaced because, to put it bluntly, they are irreplaceable. Sometimes you just have to get over it! It isn’t a case of bias, it is a case of two supremely talented players out-growing their native environment.
The real key to explaining this swing in fortunes can be found in what Cockerill has managed to do with a raft of players who were all at the club when he arrived. Rory Sutherland, Stuart McInally, WP Nel, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis, Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Viliame Mata, Chris Dean, Blair Kinghorn and a few others have gone from a rabble of under-achievers to a unit of over-achievers during the course of three-and-a-bit years.
Similarly, Duhan van der Merwe arrived as a fine physical specimen with a chequered injury history and a lack of minutes in the saddle. Nobody at Glasgow was calling foul when he was directed towards Murrayfield rather than Scotstoun. Meanwhile, Bennett, Henry Pyrgos and Jamie Bhatti were all Glasgow rejects. This is about what Cockerill has made of the team, not what he has been given.
At the same time as Jones, Alex Dunbar and (to a slightly lesser extent) Tommy Seymour have been allowed to go off the boil at Glasgow, a raft of players have found their feet or taken on a new lease of life at Edinburgh.
You can certainly understand and sympathise with the frustration felt by Warriors fans. They had it so good for so long that it was bound to hurt when the pendulum swung the other way – but they should keep that sense of grievance in perspective. It is a pretty handy team Wilson has picked for this weekend’s match – littered with internationalists despite having 12 squad members unavailable for various reasons – and they definitely have it within them to finish this disappointing campaign with a flourish, by delivering a bloody-nose to their nearest and dearest rivals.
Glasgow are nowhere near as bad as some of the more fatalistic supporters are suggesting, and Edinburgh are nowhere near the finished article yet.
Momentum was on Edinburgh’s side before lockdown, but how much can you sustain that over a five-month break? It is at Edinburgh’s home ground, but Glasgow have access to the international team changing room, and with no fans there it will feel pretty close to a neutral venue. They have a new coach and a point to prove and nothing to lose.
Edinburgh deserve to be favourites, but this is by no means a forgone conclusion.