LOOKING ahead to this weekend’s fixtures in the European Challenge Cup, it is clear that Scotland’s two fully professional sides face daunting challenges, but if they can both prevail the way is open for either Edinburgh Rugby or Glasgow Warriors to make the final in Marseille on May 27 – and that would be a fine achievement for Scottish rugby as it would be only the second time a Scottish side has accomplished that feat.

Warriors have the harder task as they must travel to Lyon for their match on Saturday evening, when they will already know their potential semi-final opponents as Edinburgh will be at home to Wasps on Saturday at 12.30pm. A double Scottish win will set up a mouth-watering semi-final between the Scottish teams, and I can only hope that happens as it will at least mean Scottish representation in the final.   

As I’ve written before, we are now at the business end of the season and we will find out just how Edinburgh and Glasgow are placed in European terms. Yet I contend that the European Challenge Cup fixtures will not decide who is the better Scottish side – that will come only in the 1872 Cup decider on May 21, and I would not want to call the outcome at this point in time.  What a game that will be, and whoever wins will deserve the right to be called top dogs.      

Though it was their first defeat at the DAM Health Stadium, Edinburgh at the weekend did manage to secure the bonus point against Ulster that means they will join Warriors in the play-offs for the United Rugby Championship (URC).

Being realistic, neither of our two professional sides are unlikely to advance any further in the tournament as they cannot finish in the top four places which would have meant a home tie in the quarter-finals. Instead, one of them will definitely have to visit Leinster who are already assured of top seeding, while the other will travel to either Ireland or South Africa depending on the outcome of the remaining matches. Coming back with victory from either country would be pretty miraculous, frankly.      

For most of the season it looked as though the Warriors might make the top four, but they didn’t quite sustain their play towards the end of the Championship. Edinburgh’s aim realistically was to make it into the play-offs and they got the job done, albeit with difficulties along the way.

In terms of the URC, the introduction of the South African teams into European competition has produced exactly what was predicted – they have added much to the URC, and the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls all made it to the play-offs at the expense mainly of the Welsh sides as there is not a single side from Wales in the quarter-finals.

As a result of their performances, those three South African teams will also take their place in next season’s European Champions Cup, and that will mean problems for whoever qualifies from Scotland – neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow will fancy travelling to South Africa, even if Edinburgh did become the first Northern Hemisphere URC side to win there when they beat the Sharks in Durban at the end of March.

You might ask what are South African teams doing in European competition, to which the answer is simple – money. Their presence generates more cash for all the participants, and that’s the ultimate reason for their inclusion. But then you could also ask how can a governing body own rugby teams? I have too much respect for the coaches and players of Glasgow and Edinburgh to even speculate if there could be Murrayfield influence on what is going to happen on May 21, but you have to admit it’s not a good look for Scottish rugby that our two fully professional teams are still owned by the SRU – and whatever happened to those great plans for private investment, i.e. ownership, of either club?

It's a subject for another time, however, and for the sake of Scottish rugby, let’s hope both our pro teams do well this weekend.

Meanwhile I have noticed precious little comment on a matter that affects the national team. Last week Spain were effectively kicked out of the 2023 World Cup with ten points deducted for fielding an ineligible player, Los Leones having qualified for France where they would have been in Scotland’s group.

The Spanish rugby federation has been deeply embarrassed by the World Rugby decision after they fielded South Africa-born prop Gavin van der Berg who qualified for Spain on residency grounds until a passport ‘problem’ emerged. The Spanish federation admitted their exclusion came “as a result of an alleged forgery of the player’s passport.” They may appeal, but I can’t see World Rugby backtracking.

Romania will now join us, South Africa, Ireland, and most likely Tonga in pool B. I would remind you that Romania have twice beaten Scotland, albeit in the amateur era, but the Scots would have preferred to play Spain. Shouldn’t make much difference – if we can’t beat Romania, we shouldn’t be in the World Cup.