WITH three defeats in the Heineken Cup behind them, there may seem little tangible motivation for Glasgow as they face Exeter today, but those with half-decent memories will recall how the Warriors’ season took off again at this point last year.
Then, they did not even have one win to their name in Europe, but a rousing finale and victory over Northampton at Scotstoun in the final week rejuvenated the squad and they duly went on a successful run that carried them to the end-of-season league play-offs.
Head coach Gregor Townsend strived to convince yesterday of the motivation his players claim from simply wearing the Warriors jersey, and from the fact that, were they to beat Exeter today and then Toulon at home next weekend, there remains a mathematical chance of slipping into the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup, but the reality is that big games and big results are what really stoke the fires in the players.
“There is that outside goal that it’s not over yet,” said Townsend, “but that win against Northampton last year is definitely part motivation.
“That was a very important game for us. It was one of our best performances of the season and the way it finished obviously was fantastic for the supporters. It really kicked us on through that period of the Six Nations and afterwards, so it’s similar now. If you get a win against a top quality team, it gives you the confidence that things are going well.
“Players have the opportunity to play well for the club and to get real momentum going through these next two big games when we play a top English side and then a top French side, the European champions, so there is the motivation to be involved in that next week.
“This tournament is a special tournament and we fired a shot in the Exeter game [won at Scotstoun] but we didn’t back that up with performances we expected against Cardiff.”
Unusually, Townsend has made no changes to the last team he announced. Admittedly, that team did not play, their return match with Edinburgh being called off due to a flooded Scotstoun. That will be played later in the season, depending on whether either side has European interest after the Six Nations, but Townsend is hoping to play the other postponed RaboDirect PRO12 fixture against Treviso in either of the two final Six Nations weeks, when the PRO12 is blank. That may depend on whether Treviso agree to playing without their Test men.
This weekend, however, the focus is firmly on Sandy Park in Exeter, where the Warriors will be cheered on by an Ayr squad, including a number of their team-mates for their British and Irish Cup match against Cornish Pirates tomorrow. Even if a first-ever qualification for knockout stages in Europe proves beyond Glasgow, the Chiefs and Toulon clearly remain attractive scalps.
The English side currently sit eighth in the Aviva Premiership with six wins and six defeats, and they have retained only five players from last week’s last-gasp loss to Wasps – James Hanks, Tom Johnson, Dave Lewis, Henry Slade and Luke Arscott.
Wallaby Dean Mumm is missing, but, with Johnson and South Seas stars Fetu’u Vainikolo and Sireli Naqelevukito starting, the team is not significantly weaker than that which lost 20-16 at Glasgow in October and at home in pre-season to the Warriors, 29-26.
Head coach Rob Baxter insisted that the number of changes were not a signal that they had given up on their hopes of finishing second in the pool and reaching the Amlin quarter-finals.
“We have freshened up the squad a little bit this week, the players have trained well and you can see they are fresh and very enthusiastic about getting out there and taking part in a very good game,” he said.
“If we can bang in a couple of wins, then the opportunity is possibly there for us still to qualify in the Amlin and in some ways qualifying for the latter stages of the Amlin through the Heineken would be a bigger achievement than if you qualified normally through the competition.
“There is still a lot to play for and the important thing is this group of players go out and perform well.”
That applies particularly to the English club but also to Glasgow as the European pools head to the finale in what may be their last in the present format.
Glasgow Warriors team to play Exeter Chiefs, Heineken Cup, Sandy Park, Saturday 11 January (kick-off 3pm):
Team to face Exeter
15. Stuart Hogg
14. Sean Maitland
13. Byron McGuigan
12. Alex Dunbar
11. Sean Lamont
10. Ruaridh Jackson
9. Henry Pyrgos
1. Ryan Grant
2. Dougie Hall
3. Ed Kalman
4. Tim Swinson
5. Tom Ryder
6. Rob Harley
7. Chris Fusaro (Captain)
8. Josh Strauss
16. Pat MacArthur
17. Jerry Yanuyanutawa
18. Jon Welsh
19. Leone Nakarawa
20. James Eddie
21. Ryan Wilson
22. Niko Matawalu
23. Duncan Weir