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Glasgow and Edinburgh's tough task


What Edinburgh and Glasgow must overcome to reach the Champions Cup semi's

On Saturday lunchtime, Edinburgh will run down the Murrayfield tunnel and into a cauldron of noise. The place will be packed out and cacophonous and bedecked with colour in a way that it never is for club rugby.

Where normally ranks of unoccupied, unrequired blue seats loom like rows of shark teeth, this weekend, there will be folk and flags in their droves.

The backdrop will be glorious. This will be a grand day out in the capital, for sure. The hollering and fanfare will be welcome and intoxicating, but it is all a worthless sideshow to Richard Cockerill unless his team deliver a performance to match the fervour.

Cockerill wants to build a champion club where a 40,000 crowd needn’t be a fleeting marvel. Days like this were the norm for Leicester Tigers, where he was reared and shaped, and for Toulon, where he was flung in to the head coach role and took the team to a Top 14 final in the months before moving to Scotland.

His work here thus far has been magnificent. He has taken players muddling along in subterranean levels of form and got them motoring. Stuart McInally, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Simon Berghan, and Magnus Bradbury all look infinitely sharper and more malevolent for his influence. Young Scots like Darcy Graham, Luke Crosbie and Jamie Ritchie are flourishing.

Cockerill has stardust in Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Duhan van der Merwe and Bill Mata, his thunderous, tackle-breaking, off-loading Fijian fulcrum. The Barclay-Watson-Mata back-row is as brilliant as you’ll find in any corner of the continent.

But more impressive than the show-stoppers has been Cockerill’s ability to wring every last drop out his squad. Chris Dean and James Johnstone are hardly household names but have been an outstanding centre pairing with the more illustrious Matt Scott and Mark Bennett injured.

Top of a pool containing Montpellier, Toulon and Newcastle? A home quarter-final in Cockerill’s second season? You’d have had a job getting even the most sanguine of Edinburgh fans to dream that big in the summer of 2017. This is Edinburgh’s testing ground now. And what a test awaits.

There is a mountain of talent in the Munster team that stands between them and only a second-ever semi-final – that much is obvious. They have the meanest defence in the Pro14 and the meanest defence in the Champions Cup. On average this season, they concede just 15 points a game.

There are Grand Slam-winners and Lions in their ranks and in Joey Carbery, a swaggering pivot who was imperious when Ireland came to Murrayfield in February and ground Scotland into a mistake-ridden submission.

But there is also pressure. Frustration. A gnawing hankering for silver that has not been sated in what feels like an age.

It’s been eight years since Munster’s last trophy – Edinburgh would kill for the rich history of their opponents, but for a province of Munster’s immense stature, that’s a drought to rival the Egyptian famine of Genesis.

Nine of the current squad were at the club when Munster won the Pro12 of 2011, but all bar a couple were pups. Only Billy Holland, Tommy O’Donnell and Keith Earls were around for the Heineken Cup triumph three years earlier and only Earls saw any game time.

For too long, this proud rugby people raised on glory have been the bridesmaid. Munster have been in four Champions Cup semi-finals, three league semi-finals and two league finals since that title eight years ago. Too many near misses. Too much pain. How they thirst for glory and how their support demands it.

This is a monumental challenge for Edinburgh and yet, in the Scottish capital, there is optimism. Buckets of the stuff. That’s the Cockerill impact in microcosm – the belief that no matter who arrives on their turf, Edinburgh can put them away.

This is the club’s first appearance in a top-tier European quarter for seven years. In 2012, a stellar Toulouse team fetched up at Murrayfield and were put to the sword by a Scottish core laced with Fijian elan in front of a bumper crowd. Sound familiar?

If Edinburgh’s challenge is colossal, Glasgow’s is Everest on steroids. In the last eight seasons, Saracens have been European champions twice and runners-up once. In that time they have lost four home games – twice to Clermont, once to Toulouse and once to Toulon. Four home defeats in 31 matches. A win rate of 87%.

Saracens are the reigning Premiership champions and have an arsenal of rugby galacticos who have been here so many times before and know what it takes to get the job done.

Glasgow haven’t walked that hallowed path – not yet, anyway. They have never reached the semi-finals and their only last-eight appearance came two years ago. It ended, of course, with a resounding defeat at Allianz Park.

If his task wasn’t hard enough, Dave Rennie will have to do without some of his form players and most dangerous runners. Nick Grigg is out. Huw Jones is out. Tommy Seymour, a veteran and a Lion, is out. Club-record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe and co-captain Ryan Wilson are crocked.

To beat Saracens with a fully-loaded squad would be fiendishly tough. Do it bereft of this much talent and you’d have to call it the greatest triumph in Warriors history.

Wilson, in particular, will be a grievous loss. He isn’t the biggest carrier or the best jackaler or the flashiest off-loader but he is good at all three and has a work rate to match a beaver on caffeine tablets. More importantly, he is a mighty character – and Glasgow need characters to handle what’s coming their way.

What they also need is the right temperament. The setting for this will be colourful, but in a different way to Murrayfield. Saracens and Glasgow have already contested two bruising, niggly pool matches and Saracens have won twice.

Glasgow showed in those games they have the weaponry to hurt Saracens, but have they got the mettle to stay on it for 80 minutes? Rank inconsistency plagued Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, right up to that absurd Calcutta Cup draw at Twickenham – this level of rugby warfare is no place for flakiness.

Dave Rennie spoke very tellingly and very deliberately this week about what he reckons to be an underhand Saracens ploy for masking errors with “a lot of push-and-shove to maybe bring the referee in to change a decision”.

He said after the first meeting at Scotstoun, a 13-3 defeat peppered with dust-ups and refereeing controversy, that Maro Itoje was “a law unto himself” and “seems to get away with a fair bit”.

Itoje had sarcastically celebrated a disallowed Glasgow try in amongst the joyous home players who had not heard Mathieu Raynal’s whistle.

“They are probably one of the worst teams for mouthing off and celebrating in your face,” said Wilson, before Glasgow lost 38-19 at Allianz Park in December.

The attrition of this game will be Test-level in its intensity. Glasgow will have to wrangle Itoje and Will Skelton and Billy Vunipola and live with the stratospheric kind of power Saracens bring.

They will want to get at Alex Goode and rile Owen Farrell, the play-makers-in-chief, and keep Wales rapier Liam Williams’ opportunities as paltry as possible. Farrell’s errors at fly-half gave Scotland two tries on their comeback trail and the captain ultimately got hooked by Eddie Jones. The odds of Farrell being as ropey again? About the same as Canada winning the World Cup.

Farrell…Itoje…Vunipola…Goode…Williams – we’re talking about some of the very top operators in Europe here. Where are Glasgow in their quest to get up there with them? We’re about to find out.

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What Edinburgh and Glasgow must overcome to reach the Champions Cup semi's
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