This weekend saw the return of European club rugby, with the new format seeing only Glasgow dining at the top table (courtesy of their exceptional domestic season last year) in the Champions Cup, and Edinburgh playing in the second-tier Challenge Cup instead.
Edinburgh had to dig deep and show real steel to edge past a resolute Bordeaux-Begles team in France on Friday night. Bordeaux had chances to win it at the death, including a last-ditched drop-goal that drifted wide, but Edinburgh deserved the win after staying patient for so long. Consistent pressure eventually told, with a converted penalty-try seeing them past the French, who finished with just 13 men on the field. Tim Visser’s score had put Edinburgh ahead after a 3-0 half-time score to the hosts, before Bordeaux replied with a try through Baptiste Serin. Two penalties from former France fly-half Lionel Beauxis seemed to have given them the edge, but Tom Heathcote’s conversion of the penalty try in the 72nd minute gave Edinburgh a 15-13 advantage that they clung to for an important win in Pool 4.
Bordeaux may not be one of the recognized big French names, but they have had a great run of form leaving them in 3rd in the Top14 coming into the competition. Most impressively, on the same ground on which Edinburgh battled on Friday, Bordeaux have scored over 50 points in both the previous two fixtures, and over French giants ASM Clermont-Auvergne and Castres no less. Coach Alan Solomons is right to be so pleased with his side, as regardless of its gritty nature, a win anywhere in France is no mean feat. This result marks only their third win in France from 20 attempts, and thus Edinburgh can take a vast amount of positives from this victory.
With their lacklustre stop-start approach to the season thus far, this hopefully will settle the ship for Edinburgh fans, who had such high hopes after the victory over Munster in the first week of the Pro12. Next week is Round 2 of the Challenge Cup, and Edinburgh will be facing another French side, Lyon, at Murrayfield. Saturday saw Lyon edge out struggling English side London Welsh, but not impressively, and the insipid form of French sides travelling away in Europe – particularly those like Lyon who will be focussing on Top14 survival more than Europe – means that this fixture could give Edinburgh the perfect platform on which to build. Two victories in this opening fortnight could give Edinburgh the spark of momentum that could really help resuscitate a season that had showed worrying signs of having stalled already.
By contrast, Glasgow have been in white-hot form at the start of this season, consolidating on their best-ever finish of second in the Pro12 last year. Their only defeat thus far was in Belfast the week previous, and they have been impressive in their five wins prior to this reverse. The side continues to grow under coach Gregor Townsend, and with an electric backline including Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour, the defensive stats of last season (the fewest points conceded, and fewest tries leaked of any Pro12 side) have been reinforced with an attacking threat that is being honed and sharpened week on week.
This was in particular evidence on a blustery Saturday afternoon in Glasgow, as the Warriors tore a much-vaunted Bath side to shreds with a display that showed determined defence and sublime attack in equal measures. Bath have had a similarly outstanding start to their domestic season, scoring tries for fun against the finest sides in the English Premiership (witness their 45-0 hiding of European heavyweights Leicester Tigers), and despite a blip against Wasps last weekend, they were expected to be a serious challenge to Glasgow at Scotstoun Stadium. This could not have been further from the truth, as the Warriors finished 37-10 victors. Captain Henry Pyrgos was named man-of-the-match as his side put in a clinical defensive display to thwart the visitors. With a try apiece for the sides and 10-10 after 30 minutes, Glasgow cut free when Sean Maitland scored near the right corner, followed seven minutes later by Tommy Seymour in the left. 23-10 at half-time was followed by a try to Niko Matawalu, and a second to Mark Bennett, to leave Bath pointless since the 13th minute.
Glasgow showed great verve in attack, speed at the breakdown, and some silky offloading skills to puncture a solid Bath defence with regular impunity. If there was anything to criticise, it was that the Bath pack uprooted their opposite numbers at Scrum time all afternoon, and this will need to be worked on prior to the trip to Montpellier this coming Saturday. Montpellier will be a very tall order, but based on Saturday’s showing there is no reason why Glasgow cannot win there – not least as Montpellier’s influential playmaker Francois Trinh-Duc has been ruled out with injury for the foreseeable future, leaving his side weaker. For the time being, though, Glasgow can congratulate themselves on making a huge statement of intent in Europe that all other sides would do well to notice.