If space was the final frontier for Captain James T Kirk, then Europe remains uncharted territory for Captain Jonny Gray and his gang of Glasgow Warriors. Despite several stellar years in the Pro 12, culminating in the surgical dismantling of Munster in last season’s final, Glasgow have yet to reach the quarter-finals of any European competition… and it grates.
With that in mind, no-one can accuse Gregor Townsend of a lack of ambition when all the talk from inside the camp is that Glasgow aim to be the best club in Europe despite facing French clubs like Racing 92 who boast a budget equivalent to a small African state.
“These are internal things we talk about,” Townsend replies pointedly, not entirely happy with the publicity. “It’s important to be ambitions, to set high expectations of the group. There are a lot of ways you can be one of the leading sides in Europe; do well in your own domestic competition, show consistency throughout the season and do well in Europe.
“Obviously if you are spending that amount of money” – Racing’s budget is a multiple of Glasgow’s – “you are going to get world-class players but it’s more than just a team sheet. Within our budget we have 38 international players in our squad which is a huge number. Last season we had 37 and I thought we would drop under that number but a few of the players we have signed are internationals and we have had a few players capped over the summer so we have a lot of belief in our squad too.
“It’s how well we coach, how well we play in those games but we realise that in Europe you have to be at your very best to be in with a shout of beating those teams in Europe.”
In the past three seasons of European rugby, Glasgow have been undone by French giants. In Townsend’s first year with the Warriors, his former club Castres bested his new one both home and away. Two seasons ago, the Warriors had their backsides felt by Toulon in the south of France before narrowly losing the return game at Scotstoun, and last season it was Toulouse’s turn to dent Glasgow’s ambitions with twin wins.
This season, Racing sit second in the Top 14 and they stand between Glasgow and European glory, or at least a place in the quarter-finals, which would amount to the same thing given the Warriors’s recent record.
In a show of financial muscle, the French club has signed Dan Carter and is said to be paying him the thick end of £1.3 million per annum for his services. He won’t appear next Friday, “I think I read somewhere that he didn’t fancy facing Glasgow,” is Townsend’s tongue-in-cheek take on events, but the Kiwi will almost certainly be in harness for the return fixture in January. But even without the sublime stand-off, Racing boast an impressive multinational squad of superstars: Juan Imhoff, Eddy Ben Arous, Yannick Nyanga and Luke Charteris, who look eminently capable of blocking Glasgow’s route to the knock-out stages of this competition as so many French teams have done in the past.
“Having two French teams in the pool last year was a challenge but the players did really well against Montpellier (who Glasgow beat both home and away). This is why this is such a great competition. We played pretty well against Toulouse but it wasn’t enough. You have to play very well to beat these teams. They were a very good team ,very tough to break down defensively, we probably played better down there, we got in behind them but didn’t finish them off and they turned us over at the breakdown which they targeted.
“We didn’t play badly but you can’t afford to play less than very, very well and Racing are the same. You’ve seen their squad. It’s a Who’s Who of world rugby. They have shown a couple of times over the last few years that they could be the best in Europe. They beat Northampton by 30 odd points in Northampton, they are building a project with this huge stadium with all the money that is being invested but it’s a challenge for us. I can’t wait to take them on.”
If the Glasgow coach wants some inside information on next Saturday’s opposition he only has to phone a friend. Townsend played at Brive alongside one Racing coach Laurent Travers and he has faced another often enough, first playing against Ronan O’Gara when the Irishman made his Test debut against Scotland in 2000. The former stand-off has taken up the role of defence coach with the Parisian aristocrats and he seems to be making a decent fist of things since Racing boasted the meanest defence (equal with Toulouse) in the Top 14 last season, conceding just 1.4 tries per match.
On that evidence the Parisian club will hang tough in defence but what does Townsend expect from Racing with the ball in hand, especially after the national squad has been excoriated for their hopeless lack of ambition? The issue scratches a sore from two seasons back when Toulon confounded all expectations, throwing the ball about and scoring at will.
“It’s always a strange one,” replies Townsend, “because against Toulon we did the most in-depth analysis of any team we have ever done, it was like preparing for a Test match, and we predicted a different game. They played a tight style for the last ten games in France. Who knows if Racing will want to take us on up front and make it a power game or if they’ll want to score four tries? That was definitely the way of Toulon that day and they were brilliant.
“I don’t want to get it wrong!” he responds when pushed. “Racing have some excellent rugby players and if you give them quick ball they will go wide, but when you look at them you think forwards, set piece, big ball carriers, Chris Masoe coming around the corner, physical back line as well. We have to prepare for both and make sure we stop that forward strength so they are not able to play an all round game.”
It obviously bothers Townsend that he got Toulon so badly wrong but from a personal perspective the angst will only drive him on. He is obviously a rugby anorak because well into the competition he boasted of having watched every single World Cup match until eventually “the day job took over”, so what lessons did Townsend learn?
“Once we got the All Blacks in the later games, it was the detail,” he replies. “Look at their kick chase, their catch-pass, their support lines, every bit, you could see the coaching that went into that and the players’ own focus and preparation. There wasn’t a weak part of their game, it was all really precise. You take bits from other countries but every detail of the All Blacks game was covered so it’s a great model for us as coaches and players to aspire to.”
Like I said, no-one can accuse Glasgow Warriors or their coach of setting their sights too low.