GLASGOW coach Gregor Townsend has sprung a few surprises again with his team selection for tomorrow’s opening Heineken Cup match in Toulon, what he happily bills as the biggest challenge his side has undertaken.
The Warriors famously won a thrilling match in Toulouse four years ago, but even the scale of that achievement now begins to pale against the bid this weekend to unseat reigning champions Toulon. When the hosts took the wraps off their line-up yesterday, it only underlined the incredible quality at their disposal.
Probably the world’s greatest stand-off of the millennium so far, Jonny Wilkinson, starts in the No 10 jersey, partnering Springbok scrum-half Michael Claassens, Wallaby Matt Giteau is at inside centre with France’s Maxime Mermoz outside, England’s Delon Armitage is at full-back, and there are talented Fij-ian and Samoan wings in Josua Tuisova and David Smith.
Italian tighthead star Martin Castrogiovanni anchors the pack with Springbok legend Bakkies Botha and All Blacks World Cup winner Ali Williams in the second row, and there is a back-row trio of Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Joe van Niekerk and Chris Masoe, who have starred in World Cups for Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand.
The bench includes All Black Carl Hayman, French caps Mathieu Bastareaud and Frederic Michalak, Wallaby Drew Mitchell and Boks back-row Danie Rossouw. Even computer dream teams rarely come this star-studded. Throw in the renowned intimidating atmosphere of the Stade Felix Mayol, created by 16,000 desperate French supporters, and, clearly, one thing Townsend would have liked would have been to have his best team on the park. But sport rarely works to plan.
Sean Lamont was forced to withdraw yesterday after suffering a calf injury in training, joining full-back Stuart Hogg, who has been ruled out for a month at least after wrist surgery, and others in the treatment room: Peter Murchie, who dislocated his shoulder last month and is out for six months, Peter Horne, Ryan Wilson, Mike Cusack and Gabriel Ascarate.
On top of that, Scotland flanker Rob Harley is being rested in line with the agreed player management protocol after six games on the bounce. So there is a new look to the line-up, starting with normal lock Tim Swinson stepping in at blindside flanker, alongside returning No 8 Josh Strauss and Chris Fusaro. The experienced international Dougie Hall is preferred to Pat MacArthur at hooker, with Ryan Grant and Jon Welsh either side, and 19-year-old Jonny Gray returns in the second row to partner skipper Al Kellock.
Niko Matawalu retains his position on the wing, with Tommy Seymour replacing Lamont on the other flank, but Chris Cusiter drops out of the squad as Henry Pyrgos returns. He will take over goal-kicking, having outshone Ruaridh Jackson in training.
Townsend, however, talked up his side and has encouraged his players to seize the opportunity, and skipper Kellock believes that his side has the experience and confidence to make life uncomfortable for the tournament favourites.
“I have never been to a game there,” Kellock admitted, “but all our players are very much aware of what goes on. I made the point and Ryan Grant made the point again this morning that it is all great motivation. I keep getting told that it’s an intimidating place to go and play, but I see Toulon as a motivating place to go and play.
“I’ve been in these environments before, and some of the most hostile of environments are definitely the best to play in and, as captain, I’ve got to make sure it brings the best out of our young guys as well.”
The big challenge for Toulon coach Bernard Laporte is perhaps the opposite to Townsend’s, in that he has so many players of note that he will invariably have alternative opinions every week on what his best line-up is. He has not rotated players as Townsend has, and there are creeping concerns in Toulon that some players were showing signs of fatigue last week in their narrow win over Clermont, having played almost all of their opening nine championship games.
The return to a Heineken Cup that now holds great memories is guaranteed to lift them, but if Glasgow can compete with the home pack and hold their own, and ask questions across the field in the opening quarter, they could sow some doubts, on the pitch and around the stadium. While Toulon rarely lose at home, when they are under pressure and the scoreboard is still, their crowd is not slow to get on their backs and, knowing little about Glasgow, the Toulonnais expect a bonus-point hammering of the visitors tomorrow.
Kellock is aware of that, but also knows, in what remains a game of 15 v 15, confident Scottish teams always have the ability to produce the unexpected.
“We’ve seen that a few times haven’t we?” he added. “The key for me is that we have to enjoy these experiences because they don’t come very often. I’ve played for 12 years as a professional and I can still only pick out five or six really big ones that I can look back on with that kind of memory.
“So we have to enjoy them, use it to your advantage and concentrate on the game and your role within the game.”
There is an air of confidence around the 32-year-old that comes from being part of underdog victories, with Glasgow and Scotland. They know the odds are not with them this weekend, but in a pool featuring Exeter and Cardiff, two sides they have beaten already this season, there is a confident determination to qualify for the quarter-finals this term and so even a bonus point away from home would be good.
“It would be a fantastic achievement for the team [if we won],” admitted Townsend. “We talked about beating a Leinster team that were unbeaten in 19 out of 20 and what a great result that was for the club. This would be even better.”