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Blair’s Edinburgh revolution bodes well for exciting cup clash – Stuart Bathgate

A STAND-OFF with a certain swagger. A back three eager to counter-attack from anywhere. A pack with the self-confidence to improvise in the loose.

Does that description sound familiar? It certainly should to anyone who has watched Glasgow over the past decade or so.

Take the classic Warriors line-up that beat Munster in the PRO12 final six years ago. Finn Russell was that stand-off. Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and DTH van der Merwe were the back three. And in the pack, Leone Nakarawa – at lock alongside Jonny Gray that day – epitomised the willingness to keep the ball alive.

But, as we begin to look ahead to the 1872 Cup double-header – at Scotstoun two days after Christmas then at BT Murrayfield on January 2 – it is also a description that could easily fit the new-look Edinburgh side who will take on the Warriors. And that fact means we could very well be in for a radically different derby this year.

According to the old stereotype, the inter-city clash was invariably a case of Edinburgh’s pack against Glasgow’s backs. The game plan preferred by the capital club’s former head coach Richard Cockerill was all about limiting the opportunities for the Warriors in open play, and it quite often worked. But under Mike Blair, Edinburgh play a very different brand of rugby, one which is about stretching their opponents, ideally to breaking point, rather than constricting them.

And by the same token, Glasgow are a far different side now under Danny Wilson than they were in the glory days under Gregor Townsend or even during Dave Rennie’s seasons at the helm. Six years is no time really, but it will not have escaped the notice of Warriors fans that those half-dozen key players mentioned above have all moved on from Scotstoun. (Hogg and Gray should be back at the weekend on Champions Cup duty with Exeter.)

Granted, the fact that some talented players have moved on does not mean that Glasgow are devoid of the kind of creativity that those players brought to the team. Nor does Wilson’s more pragmatic style mean the Warriors have entirely abandoned their old carefree ways. Instead, it should be seen as a necessary recalibration in a team who had become too loose, too prone to attempting the implausible option from behind their own posts.

But even so, it could easily be argued that it is the current Edinburgh side, not their rivals in the west, who have taken on the mantle of creativity once worn by Russell and co. That should not be taken to suggest that Blair’s team are genuine contenders to win the URC. For all that they are just a point off the top of the table, the fixture list has been kind to them.

Nonetheless, if you were searching within Scottish rugby now for a stand-off with a certain swagger, you might well find him in Charlie Savala. Playing just his sixth game of professional rugby at the weekend against Saracens, the 21-year-old was composure personified, above all when he lofted a punt out towards the left wing for Ramiro Moyano to catch and score.

And if you were looking for a back three with the counter-attacking verve once associated with Hogg, Seymour and Van der Merwe, you need look no further than Moyano, his fellow-Argentinian Emiliano Boffelli, and Darcy Graham – who should be back for the 27th game after missing out on the Saracens match due to a training-ground injury.

For Nakarawa…Well, there is really no one individual in the Edinburgh ranks who can compare to the Fijian’s off-loading ability. But there are plenty of forwards in Blair’s team who can improvise in the loose in a way they were never given the licence to do before, and that unpredictability makes them a real handful.

Magnus Bradbury, for example, is in his best form for years. Yes, the back-row forward can still dip his shoulder and barge into would-be tacklers with all of his traditional brutality, but he also varies his game a lot more, which keeps his opponents guessing.

However, the really impressive thing about Edinburgh under Blair is not so much the fact that they are now far more aesthetically pleasing to watch than they were under Cockerill. It is that they have become far more creative while maintaining the high levels of combative physicality which often served them so well under their former coach.

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying that, probably for the first time in a good few years, we have genuine reason to look forward to the 1872 Cup games.

As long as Glasgow don’t take the whole role-reversal thing too far and take a conservative approach, they could well be classics of no-holds-barred attacking rugby.

The prime worry for Blair is that, as his team have a Challenge Cup bye week while the Warriors are playing Exeter in the Champions Cup, his players could go into the derbies undercooked. The worry for Wilson is that, coming on the back of the La Rochelle game, Saturday’s Exeter match could take too much out of his squad. Having said that, the coach was in no doubt yesterday that playing this weekend is preferable to resting.

“We’d rather play the tough game,” he said. “That keeps you battle-hardened and sharp against two of the best sides in Europe – to test yourself against those guys and then go into the derbies. The risk, though, is the knocks and bumps and everything else that comes along.”

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