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1872 Cup: Passion play

Talk about damning with faint praise.

Fans are now gripped by the fixture and its air of menacePhotograph: SNS
Fans are now gripped by the fixture and its air of menacePhotograph: SNS

The other day, when Stuart Hogg was asked about Edinburgh's Heineken Cup win over Gloucester last weekend, the look that spread across his face settled somewhere between mischief and scorn. "I didn't even watch it," he shrugged. "I get the feeling Gloucester haven't been going very well."

The response speaks volumes about that swagger of self-belief that makes Hogg such a devastatingly effective player. But it also says much about the sharp rivalry that has grown up between Glasgow and Edinburgh in recent seasons. There was a time when the inter-city fixture carried all the febrile passion of a game of musical chairs, but it has lately acquired a compelling edge of genuine menace.

"It's the bragging rights for the year," Hogg said. "Friendships go out of the window." And never were they more spectacularly jettisoned than in the Firhill match of three years ago, when the final moments of Glasgow's 30-18 win were illuminated by an almighty rammy that ended with Chris Fusaro and Scott MacLeod being shown red cards by a referee whose subsequent blast on his final whistle was powered by pure relief.

Edinburgh, of course, were the more aggrieved side on that occasion, but they took their revenge spectacularly in the return match at Murrayfield the following weekend, when they won 28-17. But that match has come to haunt the capital side, for it now stands as their only win from their past outings against their friends from the west.

Can that pattern be changed this time round? A few months ago, the gap between the two sides was far greater than the length of the M8, but Edinburgh have made up ground in recent weeks. Regardless of what Hogg might think of the opposition, Edinburgh's victory at Gloucester - achieved despite the absence of a number of top players - showed that they may finally be creating depth in a squad that has looked all too fragile in the past few seasons.

But will that be enough? Do Glasgow still have the advantage in terms of sheer quality, and will the derby context allow them to forget their recent woes? Here, we look at where the 1872 Cup will be won or lost.

1 In the Tight

Glasgow have suffered a huge blow with the loss of Al Kellock, but the return of Tim Swinson should at least give them an abrasive edge. Whatever else may have been going wrong for them, their set-piece has been pretty solid. Edinburgh toiled in the scrum against Gloucester a week ago and they will do well just to hold their own against the Warriors pack, although Glasgow could be caught out by their lack of match practice following the cancellation of last Friday's fixture against Treviso. The fixture has a funny habit of throwing up surprises, and there's little doubt that Edinburgh will have been working hard on their scrum technique. Ross Ford has also hit a vein of form, and if he can hit his line-out jumpers as well then the set-piece gap could close. Overall, though, Glasgow do seem to have a clear advantage in this area.

2 In the Loose

IN stark contrast to the set-piece battle, Edinburgh look to have the upper hand here. Their ball retention against Gloucester and Leinster was exemplary, while Glasgow's Heineken Cup exit, through two losses to Cardiff Blues, can be blamed on their failure to look after possession. Cornell Du Preez has been in outstanding form for Edinburgh, while Dave Denton's commitment to a two-year contract extension last week will have taken a weight off his shoulders.

On paper, Glasgow still look strong across the back row, but their players have been operating a nudge or two below their best. Chris Fusaro looked well out of sorts in the first game against Cardiff, while Josh Strauss is not producing the goods as he did a year ago. Edinburgh will feel confident that they can cause problems here.

3 Leadership

Again, the loss of Kellock, who relishes this fixture more than any other, is a serious setback for Glasgow. In times of trouble, Kellock is a one-man assembly point for Glasgow and Edinburgh's confidence will unquestionably be boosted by his absence.

If Chris Cusiter plays then he is the likeliest contender to wear the Warriors armband; if not, then either Strauss or Henry Pyrgos is likely to assume the captaincy duties.

Greig Laidlaw has made a reputation as one of the most grounded and unflappable players around, with a keen rugby brain as well. His qualities as a leader of men are not so clearly apparent, however, so the contributions of experienced players such as Ross Ford and Nick De Luca will also be vital.

4 The Playmakers

IT is a rugby fundamental that a settled half-back partnership is a key component in a successful side, but Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend has not been able to establish one this season. Astonishingly, over the course of 14 competitive matches he has picked the same half-backs for two consecutive games only once. Injuries and Test selections have played their part, but it is still not clear what the first-choice combination might be. With three games in the space of 13 days, it is unlikely that the issue will be resolved over the festive period either.

For Edinburgh, Laidlaw is the (almost) undisputed No 1 scrum-half. The situation at fly-half, where the capital side have struggled for many years, has recently become more interesting, with Greig Tonks looking assured in the berth following his move from full-back. Whether that shift becomes permanent could be decided over the next couple of games.

5 The Finishers

Edinburgh have lost a lot of firepower since the prolific Tim Visser was sidelined with an ankle injury. Most of their tries these days seem to be coming down the narrow channels, with flanker/No 8 emerging as their most productive source. Behind the scrum, Dougie Fife has looked dangerous all season, while Ben Atiga has finally started to show glimpses of the quality that made him an All Black.

Out wide, Glasgow unquestionably have more quality, with DTH Van der Merwe, Tommy Seymour, Hogg, Sean Maitland and even Niko Matawalu all jostling for the back-three slots. Of that group, though, only Seymour has really been in top form this season. Centre Mark Bennett has something of the Midas touch near the try line, but he is carrying a foot injury and his chance of being fit to face Edinburgh are no better than 50/50.

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