GLASGOW may be stronger for the return leg in the 1872 Cup, according to forwards coach Shade Munro, despite altering the team that claimed a fine 23-14 win in the home match last week.
The Warriors, who head to Murrayfield tomorrow (4.05pm kick-off) having won the cup for the past three years but not claimed victory at Edinburgh’s home for the last two, will start Rob Harley for the first time in the No 7 jersey and have made other changes through the pack and at scrum-half and full-back.
Head coach Gregor Townsend has been striving to find a balance between consistency and keeping pressure on players to perform, and with just scrum-half Chris Cusiter of the backs still injured the selection challenge is stiffening. Munro explained yesterday that the growing strength in depth at Glasgow was putting pressure on the coaching team to rotate opportunities.
Josh Strauss returns to the back row, having returned to his native South Africa before Christmas to be married, and with Chris Fusaro and John Barclay injured Rob Harley switches to the openside flanker berth. Tom Ryder replaces Tim Swinson at lock and the experienced Dougie Hall takes over from Pat MacArthur at hooker while, in the backs, Stuart Hogg is preferred to Peter Murchie at full-back and Henry Pyrgos comes in for Niko Matawalu at scrum-half.
Munro said: “It is testament to the strength of squad we have got that we can bring players in. Josh Strauss coming back from getting married is a big one because he is a big ball-carrying forward. If you had a real in-form player you would stick with him, but the way we play and the way we train, the competition for places demands that we make these changes. That way we keep everybody on their toes. If you play at the top of your game then you will keep your place but there are lots of players knocking at the door all the time and it is good to keep it fresh.”
That applies as much to international full-back Stuart Hogg as any other player, Munro insisted, stating that while Scotland might like to see Hogg given a run to regain match fitness and form, he still had to earn that right.
“Stuart Hogg had a long injury lay-off and is still to come back to full form, though he is starting to get there now, but it [regular game-time] would be unfair on Peter Murchie, and Sean Maitland as well. We have various combinations with different full-backs but this week he deserves a shot based on what he has done.
“This is as strong a back line, or as strong a number of backs as I can remember in all the years I have been here.”
Ruaridh Jackson falls into the bracket of a player playing well enough to retain the jersey, continued Munro, pinpointing his defensive display as being the key improvement made by the stand-off. You could argue they [stand-offs] have been a wee bit inconsistent this season but in the last couple of games Ruaridh has done a lot better, certainly defensively. If you talk about building the team from defence up, he did very well last week and the week before; that is part of the reason he starts.
“Duncan [Weir] again is coming back from an injury lay-off and played well when he came on, and controlled the game well, but from a defensive and attacking point of view, we have gone with Ruaridh again.”
The key for him will be the amount and speed of ball he receives to play with. The switch in the back row, therefore, is an intriguing one, but Munro believes that Harley has the ability to be one of Scotland’s leading back-rowers no matter what number adorns his back.
A former Glasgow and Scotland lock, who also played back row for his club GHK, though never openside, Munro said: “Rob Harley has played openside before, though this is the first time he has started there, and he played extremely well – his stats were through the roof.
“The number of tackles he makes, the number of breakdowns he gets to, the number of ball carries ... basically the number of times he gets involved in the game is massive, no matter where he plays but particularly at seven.
“He is not your traditional seven but he does play like one because he covers a lot of ground. He has a huge stride, so not the tiny wee legs scampering across the ground where he looks lightning quick, but he is very quick and maintains that speed throughout the game no matter how many incidents he is involved in.
“When he started he was a four/six, which then changed to six/four and now he is almost back row/four. And the fact that he can play seven is a massive bonus to the team, and for him getting into the Scotland squad. It is not as clear-cut as these positions used to be maybe a few seasons ago. It is probably down to the way defences are, the way the breakdown is, and the way it is refereed. You still want ball-carriers, you want skilful players who can pass and you want guys who can forage and are willing to put their heads where the boots are, but you could get away with three guys who are very similar much more now than a few years ago.”
Ultimately, that is the reason for the changes and shuffling of the pack: to overcome an Edinburgh pack Munro rates as stronger now than for some time, and not only secure the 1872 Cup but push the Warriors into contention for the RaboDirect PRO12 title.
“To make the play-offs is the goal at the end of the season,” added Munro, “but it has got to be a home semi-final tie; that [aim] has never changed. This is about league points, bragging rights, the 1872 Cup is all of those things, but ultimately it is the league. All the rest does not matter as much and the fact that there is a nine-point difference between us and them is irrelevant. If we win the Cup but lose the game by eight points, you won’t see me punching the air.”