In Scotland, Europe has been the topic of the week. But unlike the shenanigans at Holyrood, where First Minister met Prime Minister, the planning for a rugby showdown is a little more advanced, with Edinburgh entertaining La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup quarter-final tomorrow night and Glasgow travelling to Saracens for their first taste of the Champions Cup’s knockout stages on Sunday.
For both Scottish sides, this is a journey into the unknown. Edinburgh have never played La Rochelle and Glasgow have yet to appear in a Champions Cup quarter-final, let alone against the champions Saracens.
Both sides – and particularly Glasgow – start as underdogs who realise that they need to conjure up the spirit that saw them to famous European wins en route to this point – Edinburgh beating Harlequins home and away; Glasgow beating Top 14 champions Racing ’92 in Paris and hammering former European champions Leicester 43-0 at Welford Road.
“Being the underdog does fuel our desire,” admitted Warriors centre Nick Grigg. “People have their opinions but I personally enjoy proving them wrong and I believe we can do it. Anyone can win on the day if the right team shows up. In the Leicester and Racing games everything we practised during the week was crisp and fast and in the match we played with a high tempo and used the ball well. If we do that again on Sunday then we can win.
“There is a danger you can build up an opponent too much. I don’t believe that happens with us as I don’t feel we get overwhelmed by the size of the team or the names. They’re just an opposition player at the end of the day and you believe if you play well then you’ll come out on top. The bigger the scalp the better.”
Both Glasgow and Edinburgh have underperformed in the Pro12, this season but both have been inspired by European competition. If Glasgow face a huge task away to the best team in Europe, at least Edinburgh are at home against a La Rochelle side who are European newcomers, whose strength is their pack and who Duncan Hodge’s side should be able to beat.
“Everyone knows that our league has not been great this year,” said Edinburgh outside centre Chris Dean. “It has been a struggle but we have brought out really good performances in Europe and we are hoping to keep that run up against a side that has been doing extremely well in the Top 14. It is a big test for us and should be a good day out. Hopefully it will be good weather and we can play some good rugby and take it to them.
“In Europe you come up against players that you don’t see week-in, week-out, which brings that totally different side to it. We are an unknown quantity to them, while they do not have many French internationals in their side, apart from Kevin Gourdon in the back row, but they do have players like Springbok Ricky Januarie and Brock James at half-back, plus a lot of very physical, very quick guys. They do not know much about us yet, and may not expect much from us but we can give them a big shock and really take it to them because you can see from our form that we can produce good rugby in Europe.”
If the physical challenges for both sides are different – Saracens will hit Glasgow with their famous “wolf pack” defence, while the gargantuan La Rochelle pack will try to steamroller Edinburgh’s more mobile forwards – the mental challenge remains the same: to convince themselves that they can defy their league form to compete against the best in the world.
“It is knockout rugby now, which comes with a little bit of extra spice and a certain extra excitement because we all know it is do-or-die,” said Dean. “This week, because it is Europe, maybe that makes it slightly easier to get positive again. Morale is good, we are certainly looking forward to it. Personally I cannot wait for it to come.”