Gregor Townsend is remarkably chipper for a man staring into the abyss. Not only do his Glasgow team have to travel to France tomorrow, where they have only ever won two matches, but the struggling Warriors face Racing 92 who currently head the Top 14.
What’s more, Glasgow must travel without several key midfield players. Peter Horne was carted off the Murrayfield pitch last weekend at the tail-end of the 1872 Cup tie, Richie Vernon is already off games and Alex Dunbar has done something nasty to his hamstring/groin which is keeping him sidelined. Sean Lamont is the obvious replacement at twelve but Townsend may yet spring a surprise or two with today’s selection.
If a couple more centres fall by the wayside the coach will be looking out his old boots, or rather he would be were he willing to risk comparison with Racing’s peerless playmaker Dan Carter.
“He has some clear strengths,” Townsend claims without danger of contradiction. “He has a fantastic running game and is fantastic at teasing an opposition that he’s just moving it wide and then goes for that gap between the second and third defender.
“But you can’t say he’s just going to do this or that, he tends to do the right thing, whether that’s pass, kick or run. He’s a very good all-round player. I’ve just watched one of his games this week when he is competing hard to win ball and you don’t see many tens do that. We know he’s in great form and he’s one of the best to ever play the game so we know we’ve got to play really well against him and put him under pressure, as we would with any ten.”
That may be a little easier said than done, especially given the sort of players that are tasked with getting the Kiwi’s back; Racing’s line-up reads like a who’s who of French rugby...whoever they pick.
Depending on results elsewhere Glasgow can possibly afford to lose in Paris provided they win the return match at Scotstoun and beat Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens, neither is exactly a gimme, which would leave them in second place. What they cannot afford is another shellacking such as they received two years ago when Toulon cut loose and had the game over by half-time.
French teams usually reserve their best performance for home turf but, as Townsend acknowledges, the Parisian fans are not quite as vocal as their country cousins and Racing too have had an odd season, more impressive on the road than in front of the home support.
“They’re an unusual one Racing in that they’ve got a very good away record,” argues the Glasgow coach.
“They smashed Clermont up there two weeks ago, they got a bonus point win at Scarlets when they played really well and they beat Toulon in Toulon. They’ve not really done as well at home, they’ve won all their games but it’s not been the big wins like away from home. Maybe they’ve got a more international flavour, and when you see some of their players, Argentines and All Blacks, a lot of them internationals, that’s why they are as good away from home as at home.
“I used to think that French teams would be 120 per cent at home and 80 per cent away from home, and I know that doesn’t make sense but the whole motivation and passion of playing at home was higher, and then the focus went off away from home. But Racing look a real consistent team, let’s hope they have an 80 per cent day at home.”
In round two Wasps proved that big French teams can be beaten when they saw off Toulon in the Ricoh Arena and at 32-6 it wasn’t close. The English club attacked with verve, they utilised a rush defence to close down Toulon’s time and space and they moved the big French pack around the park. Is there a lesson there for Glasgow?
“Racing have a big pack but they have ball players in there as well,” replies Townsend. “So it’s not as simple as saying ‘it’s a big pack, we’ve got to move them around’. They’ve got some really mobile forwards such as [twin props] Eddy Ben Arous while Ben Tameifuna is a big man but can play in the loose like a back.
“You’ve got Yannick Nyanga, Antonie Claasens, Chris Masoe, Bernard Le Roux, they’ve got some quality forwards who can play a tight game as well as an open game. But they are a team which likes to play rugby which will make the game much more open. We’ll need to play close to our best to win.”
Glasgow, you fancy, will need to be at their very best to return from Paris with the points.