THERE has always been speculation over exactly what Gregor Townsend considers to be his strongest XV.
Now, barring an injury or two, he has shown his hand. The Glasgow coach said that he had picked his best available side to start tomorrow’s key European Rugby Champions Cup (ERCC) clash with Toulouse in France.
Glasgow boast two wins from their opening two Pool 4 games and sit top, one point ahead of tomorrow’s opposition.
There is no place in the squad for club captain Al Kellock, who misses out on a big match once again. Fijian Leone Nakarawa starts in the second row alongside Jonny Gray, with Tim Swinson on the bench.
In the front row, Pat MacArthur is favoured over Fraser Brown, Townsend seemingly at odds with the Scotland selectors, while the back row almost picks itself with Josh Strauss captaining the team from No 8 alongside flankers Rob Harley and Chris Fusaro.
“This was a very difficult team selection as almost all our players were available, although we do have two or three injuries,” said Townsend. “We feel we are putting out our strongest team possible, although there were a lot of close decisions. We have good competition in a number of positions, hooker being one of them. I spoke to both sets of front rows yesterday. All six have a big role to play, more so against French teams, who sometimes put their best front row on the bench. They will have international-level props and hooker. Whoever comes off the bench for them will be excellent. We expect not just our two hookers but our four props to play big roles in the game.
“He [Al Kellock] hasn’t made the team. We have outstanding competition with Leone [Nakarawa] who has been outstanding for us and Fiji. Jonny Gray was excellent for Scotland and for us, and Tim Swinson, who has not played much rugby but has his match fitness back.”
In the backs, Henry Pyrgos is preferred to the more explosive Niko Matawalu and Finn Russell starts at stand-off with Duncan Weir on the bench. The loss of Mark Bennett, who tore his hamstring against the All Blacks, means Peter Horne starts at 12, with Alex Dunbar at 13.
No one questions their bravery, but pairing Horne with Russell is an invitation to Toulouse to send the heavy cavalry galloping down that 10/12 channel, although Townsend declares himself unperturbed.
“A lot of teams will attack that area anyway,” he says. “We played against Jonny Wilkinson and he was one of the best tackling tens around. Finn Russell is one of the best tackling tens I have seen. Peter Horne is a fantastic defender. We will relish it if Toulouse run in those areas.”
Much has been made all week of the sheer size of the behemoths available to the French club and Glasgow will have some heavy lifting and carrying to do if they are to record their second win in France this season.
Census Johnson and former All Black Neemia Tialata both tip the scales at 21 stones-plus.
With that in mind, it is no surprise that Glasgow’s captain for the day, Strauss, believes that the match will be won and lost in the forward exchanges, specifically the set scrum.
“The French sides in general love the set piece and they have big props,” said the South African breakaway. “We had a great performance last week against the Dragons and it came at a good time because this [scrum] is a big focus for us and we are going to have to be at our best.”
Glasgow will win their fair share of lineouts and restarts but the coaches will be holding their breath when the first scrum is set. In the absence of the injured Euan Murray, who would not, in any case, turn out on a Sunday, the task of anchoring the Warriors’ scrum falls to Jon Welsh, despite the fact that he has started just once for Glasgow this season since undergoing shoulder surgery. It was an impressive bow against the Dragons last Sunday, as Welsh was part of a utterly dominant set scrum.
“He has done really well since the November break,” said Townsend. “He has had a couple of games at club level and he knew the things he had to work on. In the game against the Scarlets, when he came on he did really well and he made eight tackles in 20 minutes. At the weekend there, he showed what he can do in the scrum. It was an opportunity for Jon or Zander [Fagerson] to come into our European squad with Euan getting injured, and he has grabbed that opportunity.”
And as if there wasn’t enough pressure on Welsh already, today will be his 100th game in Glasgow colours. It may just be the most important of the lot.