MEDDLING with a successful formula is always dangerous, so it was inevitable that a few eyebrows would be raised on Wednesday afternoon when the Guinness Pro 12 fixture schedule was launched, and it was revealed that the popular Scottish inter-city double-header over the festive break has been discarded.
Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors will meet as usual at Murrayfield on Boxing Day next season, but the return leg will not be played the following week, as has become the norm in recent seasons. We will have to wait until the final round of matches on 6th May instead.
The 1872 Cup – which commemorates the first time Edinburgh and Glasgow districts met – has been competed for on a home and away basis since the 2007-8 season, with the trophy going to the side with the best aggregate score over two legs.
The popularity of this double-header has grown markedly during the last nine years, with the decision ahead of the 2008-9 season to lump the games together so that they are played on the days after Christmas and New Year being widely attributed as a key factor in raising the profile of the pro-game north of the border.
Valuable league points are also up for grabs, while supporters of both clubs have really embraced the extra edge created by competing for some tangible silverware.
These games have attracted record attendances on both sides of the country in recent years. Edinburgh’s home match against the Warriors pulled in 23,642 fans last season, which is the biggest ever crowd for a league match involving a Scottish team, while the return match was watched by 8,000 supporters.
[That game was also played at Murrayfield after Scotstoun was declared unplayable, but the switch happened too late in the week to allow the match organisers to significantly increase the ticket allocation much beyond the initial 6,800 limit.]
This year’s decision to push the return fixture back to May runs the risk of derailing the momentum created by having the second game coming hard on the heels of the first, which could have a significant negative impact on the ability to use these games as a tool to capture the public’s imagination.
However, spokespeople for both Scottish Rugby and Glasgow Warriors yesterday welcomed this change in scheduling.
“The 1872 Scottish Cup is one of the success stories of the surging popularity of professional club rugby in Scotland and we’re pleased to support the request of Edinburgh Rugby, Glasgow Warriors and PRO12 Rugby to move the deciding leg to the end of the season and guarantee a dramatic finish for both clubs, before the play-offs get underway,” said the representative of the governing body.
“This move is a sensible and exciting decision by the clubs as it prolongs the drama of the derbies, supports the creation of the Guinness PRO12’s ‘Big Weekends’, offers the games a better chance of securing a bigger TV audience, and eases the fixture congestion of the clubs’ most crucial European Cup and PRO12 matches of the season,” he added.
[Six ‘Big Weekends’ will take place over the course of the season. According to tournament organisers, they will consist of “special intra-union derby matches as well as capitalising on the rivalry between the Italian and Scottish clubs”.]
There is, of course, the question of whether the Warriors could lose out financially by this decision to shift one of their most popular matches of the season backwards to a date when they would generally expect bumper crowds anyway, as their push for European Cup and play-off qualification will hopefully be reaching its climax.
However, the spokesperson for the Warriors pointed out that filling Scotstoun is no longer a major challenge for the club.
“If you look at our crowd sizes for last season, we were pretty close to being sold-out for all of our games at Scotstoun, and season ticket sales for this year have been really strong so far, so we’re pretty comfortable with that aspect of things,” he said.
“We understand that there is an appeal to having the games one after the other in terms of the buzz that creates, but now supporters will have five months to talk about what happened and get ready for the rematch.”
“And if you tie that in with the excitement which comes from the race to qualify for the play-offs and grab a European Champions Cup place, then this has the potential to really push excitement levels up a notch beyond anything we have seen before.”
The fact that this move will help keep players fresh during the build-up to the Six Nations is the big plus point for Scottish Rugby. Sandwiching these derby matches between two huge European games in mid-December and another two in mid-January was asking an awful lot of the players – with all these matches being described in the past as comparable to international level in terms of intensity.
Now, both Scottish teams will play Italian opposition on 31st December, meaning that there is greater scope to give front-liners some valuable time-off.
The Warriors kick-off their campaign away to last year’s champions Connacht on Saturday 3rd September (5.15pm kick-off), while Edinburgh visit Cardiff Blues later that night (7.35pm kick-off).
Image from Craig Watson — @CraigWatsonPix — www.craigwatson.co.uk