In the blink of an eye, the PRO14 – or whatever the appropriate nomenclature might be for the competition in a state of flux – is upon us again. The league has been shorn of its two South African teams but may gain four new ones, as it grasps for resonance and innovation across this fraught rugby landscape.
There will be Monday night games, perhaps an attempt to own a distinct slot in the broadcast schedule and create an identity around midweek fixtures. And there will very likely be some real heavyweights trooping north from Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban in the seasons ahead as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to force a shake-up of club tournaments the world over.
Scotland’s teams will have their resources tested almost beyond measure in a campaign where an eye-watering number of internationals vanish for weeks at a time.
Edinburgh must build on a largely brilliant third term under Richard Cockerill that ended with two sickening blows. A dreadful endgame against Ulster in the PRO14 semi-final and a heinous start against Bordeaux in the Challenge Cup quarter-final did for them this past month.
The test for them is not simply whether they can make the play-offs, but how they will handle the pressure when they get there? Big opportunities were squandered in both matches and, by all accounts, Cockerill gave his players an acidic savaging when they let the league semi-final plummet through their fingers.
'We all have a responsibility and the rules apply to everybody.'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 3, 2020
The picture painted of Cockerill from inside Edinburgh is that he is far more inclined to use stick than carrot and that sometimes, his intensity and belligerence veers beyond the acceptable. Unleashing the hairdryer is not necessarily bad management, but you wonder what continued verbal batterings do for players who need belief, not fear.
Edinburgh routinely beat strong opposition in conference matches and pool fixtures. They topped their division in the PRO14 with more clean breaks than anybody else, and qualified with little fuss from their Challenge Cup group. The hope is that these coulda-woulda-shoulda performances shape them into a side capable of thriving in the cut-throat business of knockout rugby.
They are, regardless, a force in the PRO14, a status that was painfully overdue before Cockerill arrived and began to haul them up by the bootstraps. His project has some way to run yet, but the results are hugely encouraging. Edinburgh have lost very few personnel. They are back at Europe’s top table and their future looks bright if they learn to flourish, not wilt, in the clutch games ahead.
Across the country, Glasgow’s development under Danny Wilson will be fascinating. Wilson has analysed his new team to the nth degree and run the numbers on their game. He has spoken again and again about the need for greater pragmatism, a cannier blueprint and a more formidable set-piece. Wilson will not sacrifice Glasgow’s great swashbuckling elan at the altar of efficiency, but he needs his team to be cleverer.
There will be games where Glasgow deviate too much from their flamboyance and become bluntly one-dimensional, and others where they revert to the riveting but risk-laden white-knuckle stuff of old. Change will not happen overnight, but change is necessary.
Glasgow made more offloads than anybody else in last season’s PRO14, but they attempted plenty others that did not find their targets and in several cases led to opposition tries. Only three teams conceded more turnovers. Their lineout operated at an 85 per cent success rate (11th best) and they conceded 27 scrum penalties across their 15 league games.
Seldom too did the Warriors kick from hand, an option to apply pressure that has become increasingly important in the modern game. Stuart Hogg, the Scotland captain, told his Exeter Chiefs teammates that Glasgow would “run absolutely everything” when the sides met in November. Exeter squeezed and suffocated them and won at a canter.
A brewing angst has swept through the Warriors fan base these past few years, supporters anxious at losing their best players without adequate replacements while Edinburgh unseated them as the nation’s premier team. This is an interminable conundrum for Scottish Rugby, who cannot keep Hoggs and Finn Russells forever nor fund like-for-like successors, but fate has been particularly cruel to Wilson.
'The ‘name’ aspect, that’s something that I’ve come across before'
With no pro playing career to speak of, @GlasgowWarriors head coach Danny Wilson is used to being seen as not a big enough name. He's also used to proving people wrong, w/ @JLyall93 ???https://t.co/gWgO9cAPhM
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 26, 2020
There is absolutely no doubt that he would have signed a front-line full-back, bolstered his pack further and probably gone for a fly-half to challenge and back up Adam Hastings had the pandemic not atomised his recruitment plans. As things stand, he hasn’t a penny to spend unless there are more imminent departures.
Glasgow still wield a terrific first XV, but what happens when at least two-thirds of them vanish on international duty? With a slew of Test matches in the autumn and the spring, how often will Wilson be able to deploy anything like his best line-up?
On any given Autumn Nations Cup weekend, the coach might be without Oli Kebble, Fraser Brown, Mesulame Dolokoto, Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, Leone Nakarawa, Matt Fagerson, Ali Price, George Horne, Adam Hastings, Sam Johnson and Niko Matawalu. With a fair wind, Huw Jones, George Turner, Tom Gordon and Ratu Tagive could also make an international squad.
The picture is slightly less troubling at Edinburgh, but Cockerill is still likely to be shorn of a frightening volume of talent. Rory Sutherland, Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, Nick Haining, Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn the newly eligible Duhan van der Merwe and injured Bill Mata could all be gone, with more still knocking at the door.
That is a savage collective loss. Virtually nowhere else will the Test contingent be so massive or their absence so keenly felt. These fixtures and the broadcast revenue they will generate are vital, but the international departures will stretch squads to their very limits and then stretch them some more. It won’t be a case of finding the right player so much as finding any player.
There will be angst in the short term, of course. Edinburgh and Glasgow are painted into a corner here, but in the years to come, this trying period could yield serious gains.
Rarely has there been a more appetising time to be a young player. Nathan Chamberlain will have the chance to prove himself as a viable professional fly-half at Edinburgh, even if Jaco van der Walt does not play for Scotland when he qualifies through residency in November.
We will see the thrilling Jamie Dobie given more game time with Glasgow, alongside Rufus McLean and Ollie Smith. Edinburgh’s slew of missing back rows will allow Rory Darge and Connor Boyle a platform to step up from excellent performances at under-20 level.
It would be unwise to toss all the kids in at once and hope they thrive, but Cockerill and Wilson have long track records in giving youth its chance when the time is ripe. In this jaundiced time of shrunken budgets and recruitment freezes, the battalion of exiting Test giants will present openings for so many of them. Opportunities to savour amid the most arduous PRO14 campaign.
Coming soon.. https://t.co/zTY2oEei8G
— Dylan Hartley (@DylanHartley) October 2, 2020
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