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European challenges for Scottish clubs

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From doldrums to competing with Europe's elite - why it's time for Scottish clubs to shine

Five years ago, Edinburgh’s titanic Fijian Viliame Mata was playing provincial rugby league in Fiji. He reckoned carpentry would provide him with a more pragmatic and fruitful career than his dream of playing rugby overseas.

Five years ago, Blair Kinghorn was a gangly 16-year-old schoolboy in Scotland’s capital, a strong-running back earmarked for big things.

Five years ago, Stuart McInally had just set out on his arduous and often bruising journey from the back-row to hooker.

Five years ago, Luke Hamilton was beginning to fall out of favour at Cardiff Blues, and with his contract expiring, wondered where his future lay.

Five years have passed since Edinburgh last dined at Europe’s top table, years in which the club stuttered, sank and decayed in the rugby doldrums, until Richard Cockerill arrived last summer to haul it free.

So much has changed in the past 15 months, much of it intangible – culture, resilience, belief – but in the concrete business of results, Cockerill’s Edinburgh reached the Pro14 playoffs for the first time and in doing so booked a ticket back to the Champions Cup.

Vern Cotter’s Montpellier, one of the richest and finest teams in the continent, await them this Saturday. For five years, they’ve longed to be back among the big boys and they certainly have their wish now.

With Edinburgh’s rapid success come challenges. The most novel is that they are now expected to win more matches. Cockerill reckons his team like being underdogs because that’s what they’re used to. Expectation is a new concept for most of this lot but this weekend, at least, nobody – not the coach, not his players, not the most myopic, deluded of supporters – expects Edinburgh to fetch up at the Altrad Stadium and topple Montpellier.

We haven’t seen the best of Cockerill’s team this season. They failed their two big tests first-up, narrow defeats in Swansea and Belfast in games they ought to have won. They shipped 52 points in their last two matches – both at home, against Benetton and Cheetahs, two improving teams but teams Edinburgh should expect to see off at Murrayfield. Defend as poorly in France, and even without Nemani Nadolo, without Frans Steyn and without top stand-offs Aaron Cruden and Johan Goosen, Montpellier will throttle them.

Edinburgh don’t, Cockerill stresses, “want to force them into an arm wrestle”, because that could get very ugly very quickly. In the Top 14, Montpellier and their team of monsters are accustomed to set-piece slogs where the ball-in-play minutes are low.

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Rather, it’s about playing at speed and shifting the bruisers around. Edinburgh’s pack, an eight Cotter knows well and admires from his three years in Scotland, will need every ounce of the snarl and ferocity they show on their mettle.

“Heineken Champions Cup rugby has probably longer minutes-in-play than most Top 14 games,” Cotter told RugbyPass.

“Staying focused and keeping our performance to a level that’s necessary in the Heineken for the full 80 minutes is a bit more demanding sometimes. The Top 14 is about decision-making and balancing the last 10 minutes of the game will be important.”

Mata, likely to line up directly opposite colossal Montpellier captain Louis Picamoles, will be vital. He is Edinburgh’s physical fulcrum. His relentless, crashing ball-carries get them going, eke out a few yards and a precious sliver of momentum again and again. Even though he missed two-and-a-half games through injury, he is the Pro14’s top carrier with 81, making almost 300m.

Cotter has spoken too about the emergence of Kinghorn and how Montpellier want to shackle the long-limbed, game-breaking full-back who loves to canter into the line.

“We had an eye on him coming through [while coaching Scotland] and he’s gone from strength to strength,” he said.
“He’s had a couple of caps, he’s growing in confidence and it’s dangerous to give him space. He’s quick, he’s big and he’s a handful.

“We’ll just have to keep him under wraps, put pressure on him and take away as many options as we can, because if he does get options, he becomes dangerous.”

It could be a chastening experience, but it will be a precious one. For this is where Edinburgh need to be if they’re to take the next steps as players and as men. What does it feel like to tackle these galacticos in their own back yard? What goes through your head when Picamoles is thundering towards you with veins popping from his enormous limbs and fury in his eyes? How good are we, can we rattle them if we play at our best?

At Glasgow, the narrative is different. There’s pressure, and a ton of it. Warriors are one of the Pro14 heavyweights but have only once made it out of their Heineken or Champions Cup pool.

Sure, the competition is designed in such a way that almost without exception, the group stage is mountainously difficult, but if Glasgow want to become a force in Europe, they have to do better.

Already, given the importance of home games, Sunday’s opener against Saracens is to all intents and purposes a must-win match. That may seem an absurd label to slap on a contest with the English champions, but that’s the reality of the world in which Glasgow are eager to thrive. Want to qualify? You’d better win at home.

Dave Rennie is without the brilliant Stuart Hogg and his two first-choice tight-head props, Zander Fagerson and Siua Halanukonuka, through injury. He hasn’t added a lot of heft to the pack that were bludgeoned and bullied last season, but he has got a fit and hungry Oli Kebble at loosehead, whose scrummaging form will be of the highest importance.

Rennie is also a year wiser and a keener student of this competition. You get the sense that, arriving from New Zealand, he hadn’t fully grasped the magnitude and ruthlessness of the Champions Cup. All the more so when his side were in the middle of a 10-game Pro14 winning streak when the first pool matches rolled around.

He has a new pivot in the saddle, Adam Hastings and his exquisitely feathered thatch of hair revelling in the high-tempo stuff you expect from Glasgow.

Hastings has been one of the stand-out players of the Pro14 so far. He has beaten more defenders than anyone else in the league and is also near the top of the charts for metres and clean breaks made.

But it’s important to examine the stats in the context of the opposition Warriors have met. Leaving aside an opening-day yellow card against Connacht, Hastings has started against Zebre, Dragons, Cheetahs – a non-entity in defence – and an under-strength Munster. It’s been an undoubtedly impressive but fairly gentle introduction to life as Glasgow’s first-choice 10.

In all four of those games, Glasgow’s pack has been dominant. Their dynamism has helped give Hastings space and time to flourish.

This will be a different and monumental task. Hastings was able to swerve and step his way out of trouble in the league. But what if his forwards aren’t commanding the close-quarter skirmishes? Has he got the mettle to run the show behind a retreating eight, with the Sarries wolf-pack hunting him down?

These are big questions and Hastings, Rennie and Warriors must come up with answers. For Edinburgh, a formidable but exciting foray beckons. For Glasgow, the pressure is on.

Watch: Dave Rennie looks ahead to Champions Cup

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From doldrums to competing with Europe's elite - why it's time for Scottish clubs to shine