THE year may have ended in frustrating fashion for Glasgow and Edinburgh with the postponement of their 1872 Cup match on Monday, but on the whole the two teams can look back on 2021 as a year of both significant achievement and considerable promise. They are now competing towards the top of the United Rugby Championship table, they have claimed major scalps in European competition, and they have made some exceptional signings.
The key event of 2021 for Edinburgh, of course, was the arrival of Mike Blair as head coach in the summer. Richard Cockerill did a lot in his four years at the helm to make the capital club more competitive, and his successor and the playing squad have insisted that his hard-nosed work ethos has to remain a part of their make-up. Even so, there was no denying the festering dissatisfaction about the place during the last few months of the former England hooker’s reign.
Cockerill’s limited game plan may have made sense at first, but latterly it had a constricting effect on the team. Blair, by contrast, has had a liberating effect, encouraging players to think for themselves, to have a go on the field, even – God forbid – to enjoy themselves.
The result has been remarkable. New recruits such as scrum-half Ben Vellacott and full-back Emiliano Boffelli have injected generous dollops of dynamism into the team, and old-stagers have also enjoyed new leases of life under Blair’s regime.
These are early days for the coach, and it should be said that Edinburgh have benefited from a benign run of fixtures: of their seven URC games so far, none has been against an Irish province, and only two – both against Benetton – have seen them play teams in the top half of the table. But you can only play the opposition in front of you, and a return of five victories and a draw from those seven games is pretty impressive.
The Challenge Cup win against Saracens earlier this month was even more impressive. Both Scottish teams have lost heavily to the former European champions over the past decade or so, but this time Edinburgh played with enterprise in attack and doggedness in defence to come away from the Stonex Stadium with a 21-18 win.
All this and a new ground too. The DAM Health Stadium may be one of the more modest venues in the URC, but its size is far more suited to Edinburgh’s needs than BT Murrayfield, which never really felt like home anyway, even to those Scotland regulars within the team’s ranks.
In brief, for a team that finished fifth out of six in their PRO14 Conference last season and lost 56-3 to Racing 92 in the Champions Cup last 16, the progress has been as remarkable as it has been rapid.
Over at Scotstoun, the consistency exhibited by Edinburgh has not been so strongly in evidence in the Warriors’ displays, but there have certainly been some encouraging signs of late. Last season, Danny Wilson’s first at the helm, was always going to be a transitional one, but the pandemic made it pretty much impossible to have any kind of coherent team-building. This time, by contrast, the new head coach has been able to bring in quality reinforcements.
Full-back Josh McKay and No 8 Jack Dempsey have been phenomenal so far, while centre Sione Tuipulotu has not only forged an impressive partnership with Sam Johnson but already made his Scotland debut. And just as importantly, young players such as stand-off Ross Thompson and winger Rufus McLean – another two to have won their first Scotland caps in the autumn – have continued to grow swiftly in stature.
Last season was by and large one to forget for the Warriors. They failed to qualify for the knockout stages in the Champions Cup, losing heavily at Exeter in their first pool game then being forced to cancel their second game, against Lyon. Their fourth-place finish in their PRO14 pool was just good enough for them to qualify for this season’s Champions Cup, but they lost 10 of their 16 matches. Their Rainbow Cup campaign got off to a dreadful start with a heavy defeat by Benetton, but at least they ended the campaign on a high note after that with four wins on the bounce.
Another defeat in Treviso this season has shown that Glasgow still have a dreadful habit of shooting themselves in the foot at times. But, faced with a tougher run of games than Edinburgh in the URC, they have won four out of seven to date and are not too far behind their rivals.
In Europe, meanwhile, they exacted a measure of revenge for that humiliation in Exeter by beating the Chiefs 22-9 at Scotstoun a week before Christmas. The Warriors remain a work in progress, but the potential for further, substantial improvement is there for all to see.