Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend believes there are enough similarities between Northampton Saints and Racing 92 that he had no hesitation in naming the same team and bench as would have faced the French side last weekend had it not been for the tragic Paris terror attacks.
The Guinness Pro12 champions belatedly open their European Champions Cup Pool 3 campaign against the English club at Scotstoun this evening after last Saturday’s game in the French capital was understandably postponed.
Such is the brutally tough nature of Europe’s elite club competition – with only the pool winners and three best runners-up going into the knockout stages – that making good starts and winning your home games are seen as almost mandatory if you have any hopes of making progress.
Following last season’s Pro12 title breakthrough, the obvious next step for Glasgow is to finally make their mark in Europe, having never before reached the quarter-finals, and Townsend is confident that his team can get off to the perfect start this evening at a 6,800 sold-out Scotstoun.
The Warriors will unleash a team which includes nine of Scotland’s World Cup squad plus Fiji lock Leone Nakarawa, Italy flanker Simone Favaro and Tonga Test prop Sila Puafisi.
Six of the seven backs – Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Mark Bennett, Peter Horne, Sean Lamont and Finn Russell – all featured for Scotland at England 2015, with former Lion Mike Blair, who will be making his 50th European appearance, completing the division.
Townsend said: “You pick a team to play well and win and it would be very harsh on players not to play. We had a look at our opponents, and part of picking a team is getting the right blend and getting guys on form, but also right for the type of opposition you are going to play. We believe that Racing and Northampton present similar challenges.
“They both have big packs and key individuals in the backline as well. The team that we wanted to play against Racing is right for this week too.”
Northampton already have a home win under their belt after edging out Scarlets 15-11 last week and Saints coach Jim Mallinder has attempted a bit of mind games by suggesting all the pressure is on Glasgow, but Townsend is unfazed.
“I think that starting the tournament well is the key,” he said. “Round three comes along pretty quickly so getting the opportunity to start at home means you want to play well. We will have to do very well to do that. Northampton are a quality side and they are confident now they have a win.
“As Jim says, they may be coming up here with nothing to lose, but even if we had played last week, won or lost, we knew that this one was always going to be a tough one and we have to play well.”
Townsend acknowledged the size of the task ahead to make it out of the pool and added: “It’s very difficult to get through. It’s the best teams in Europe and you have to play close to your best for six games to get through, and we haven’t done that in the past.
“We haven’t played at our best over the six games, and that’s what we need to do, starting tomorrow.”
Northampton, who have lost three out of four so far in the Aviva Premiership, is a club which holds a special place in Townsend’s heart as it was 20 years ago that he left Gala for the Midlands to embark on what would become a glittering professional career.
The former Scotland and Lions stand-off said: “I do definitely have a lot of affection for that club. That was my first move away from Scotland. It’s more down there I feel it. You see familiar faces. What they’ve done to Franklin’s Gardens has been great to see.
“They’re a rugby town, they’ve probably underperformed lately, but they’ve got sell-out crowds and are former European champions.”
Mallinder has made three changes from the side that beat Scarlets, with Ahsee Tuala starting on the wing, fly-half Stephen Myler replacing JJ Hanrahan and Michael Paterson packing down at lock.
The Saints coach said: “Glasgow are a class team, playing with confidence, and we’ve got a good idea how they will approach this game.
“They will try to attack us from all over the field, will look to off-load as much as they can and use their aggressive defence.”
Paris-based Racing, meanwhile, head to Llanelli today to face Scarlets, with a minute’s silence and playing of La Marseillaise planned before kick-off.
Townsend is waiting to hear when the postponed Racing-Glasgow match will be played but 9 January has emerged as a possible date. Both clubs must wait for word from European Professional Club Rugby, which yesterday said it hoped to announce the new dates “as soon as possible following this weekend’s round two matches”.