Despite their league heroics last season Glasgow still resemble the Rock of Gibraltar, a European monkey squatting defiantly on their backs. If they are to mix it with the big boys Glasgow need to make a splash in Europe and to date they have made fewer ripples than a water strider on a garden pond. Like the west coast weather, the outlook is overcast.
Gregor Townsend’s team already have one home defeat in Europe to their name after losing to Northampton so they cannot afford another, but next weekend one of the club’s favourite sons will return to Scotstoun and attempt to ensure their struggles in Europe remain, for at least one more season.
DTH van der Merwe was dubbed “Alphabet” by Sean Lineen who hired him after the fullback (he only switched to wing when he moved to Glasgow) helped Canada defeat Scotland in the 2009 Sevens World Cup in Dubai. A two-week trial led to a six-year sojourn at Scotstoun which ended with a summer move to west Wales to join the Scarlets for whom the winger had already scored three tries in three league starts before this weekend.
If the Warriors showed faith in Van der Merwe, he repaid it several times over. In the recent World Cup the winger scored tries in all four of Canada’s matches, proving himself one of the best finishers in the game, something Glasgow fans have known for years.
In 68 league starts for the Warriors the winger claimed 38 tries, none more important than the five-pointer in that Scotstoun semi-final against Ulster when he came off the bench just four weeks after having surgery on a broken hand and grabbed the winner five minutes from time. For a player who recalls being “the slowest kid in the school team” it was quite an achievement and quite an emotional moment, as he recalls.
“I didn’t realise how big an impact Glasgow had had on my life until that semi-final game against Ulster, which was my last home appearance,” he says. “The thought of leaving Glasgow didn’t bother me the week before, it didn’t bother me at training, I never thought of it, but literally when that final whistle went I just croaked out emotionally.
“I was like, wow! This place has obviously meant so much to me. It’s been my home for six years. I was in Glasgow for longer than I was in Canada. Give the club a lot of credit for what they have done for me and the opportunities they have given me so there will always be a special place in my heart for Glasgow. My daughter Nola Grace was born there as well so I will always have a close ties to Glasgow.
“After the game I was crying like a little kid. I didn’t really expect it, the emotions just took over. Obviously it was a great feeling to score that final try after a great pass from Finn Russell but, yeah, it was tough especially when I saw my wife because she was crying. She had got so close with all the girls in Glasgow, they are her best friends for life now. Glasgow means a lot to us and it was tough for me.”
All of which begs the question, if leaving was such a wrench then why did he bother? His answer is two-fold. First Van der Merwe suggests that after six years anywhere a player gets the urge to seek new challenges and had he signed for another two years with the Warriors he might well have ended his career at Scotstoun. Secondly the Scarlets’ coach Wayne Pivac nagged him into moving, phoning him at all hours and insisting that the west-Wales club were going to enjoy a return to the halcyon days when they were regulars at the sharp end of Europe.
Just not this year. So far Scarlets are zero from two in Europe and a loss next weekend would put paid to their slim hopes of crawling out of the pool. At least they are riding high in the Guinness Pro 12 and with Lions’ centre Jon Davies returning to Llanelli next season the future is bright for the club who play exactly the same sort of open, running rugby as Glasgow.
“They definitely play a similar style but I am still trying to find my spot on the team,” says a cautious Van der Merwe. “When any player moves you don’t know the ins and outs of every player like I did at Glasgow. At the moment it’s a little bit different for me so I can’t really get into the game that often, but I am enjoying it.
“I am slowly getting into it and they do obviously play the same brand of rugby that Glasgow likes to play.
“Jon Davies’s return is causing a lot of excitement around the club and we have some excellent centres like Regan King. When we get some injured players back into the action like Liam Williams I think we’ll be a very strong team. I just hope that some of the signings that have been rumoured actually take place!”
Meanwhile, the Canada internationalist, who must be getting used to playing in red, has the prospect of a return to Scotstoun to keep him busy and, after six seasons with the Warriors, you can be sure that the Scarlets’ coaching staff will pick his brains about the best way to stop Glasgow in their tracks.
“Oh man, it’ll be tough,” is his first response.
“First of all you have to shut down Leone Nakarawa and shut down Finn Russell. Take those two players who create so much out of the game and you have a better chance of winning it. That team is stacked with potential, they can play two different teams and still be world class so hopefully they will have an off game.
“Obviously the Scarlets went to Scotstoun in the first game of the season and won up there when the World Cup was still on. I don’t think the Scarlets have played that great yet and we are fortunate to have seven wins from eight starts so far (before this weekend). I think there is still a lot more to come from us and I think there is a lot to come from Glasgow too.
“It is taking a little longer for them to get back in the groove after the World Cup and get their leaders back in the game. I think we managed that a little bit better but we didn’t have as many leaders away at the World Cup.
“I literally have no idea what it will be like, it will be my first time back to Scotstoun since leaving. I have had so many things going through my head. I just wish it wasn’t such a big game because I have thought about walking into Glasgow’s changing room just to see what would happen! ‘Hey... what’s up? What are we doing today?’”
You have to imagine that the top try-scorer in the club’s history would receive a warm welcome back “home”... not least from the monkey.