IT IS the biggest test of Gregor Townsend’s short coaching career and it may well define his future in the game.
A few short weeks ago the Glasgow boss’s team sat at the top of the table, they were unbeaten at home since Castres last got the better of them in December, 2012 and the smart money had them down as RaboDirect contenders. According to Euro-rugby.com, Glasgow were the fifth-best side in Europe and, if you take that with a pinch, the Warriors were undoubtedly flying high.
Not any more. They have since tumbled in the rankings, lost three of their last seven matches and lost that long unbeaten home run to a very ordinary Munster team. Glasgow have four players facing charges of assault and they disciplined seven un-named employees only last week in relation to the same incident. Nine days ago at Scotstoun they lost to Newport Gwent Dragons, having run up 60 points against the same opposition just months ago, and they struggled to subdue what was effectively the Ospreys reserve XV on Friday night, only easing away in the final quarter.
The fall from grace has been as swift as it has been painful and the club’s reaction over the next two weekends, when they face back-to-back European matches against the Cardiff Blues, will tell us plenty about this Glasgow squad, players and coaches alike.
“Toulon are still in the driving seat,” says Townsend, “but all the clubs are still in contention, sitting on five or six points.”
The coach doesn’t argue too much when it is put to him that his team needs two wins in the next two matches against the weakest side in Pool 2, notwithstanding Cardiff’s gusty victory over Toulon last time out, but Townsend does not accept that Glasgow’s off-field woes are the root cause of their struggles on the pitch.
“We played very well against Connacht [since the incident],” he points out, “and we were poor against the Dragons at Scotstoun. We have had two very different matches so I don’t accept that the incident is having an influence on our play but I don’t want to talk about that, I’d prefer to talk about the rugby.”
Whatever the charges hanging over four players is doing to club morale, something was awry even before the incident is alleged to have taken place. Last season Glasgow played a high-tempo, high-risk game of running rugby that was all but unstoppable when everything clicked. It resulted in 66 tries, more than any other club in the RaboDirect or Aviva Premiership, at a rate of three per match. This season they have been stuttering along at half that ratio, with 14 tries scored after nine rounds of the league. Last season the side earned themselves nine bonus points for scoring four or more tries. This year they are the only side in the top five not to have one already banked. The defence is still meaner than a junk-yard dog but the attack has obviously lost its way. The question is why?
Well, it is Townsend’s tricky second season, the opposition knows what to expect from his side and they are adjusting accordingly. It’s also proving a difficult second season for Niko Matawalu, who missed the opening months through injury and seems to be almost trying too hard since his return. The Fijian was the beating heart of Glasgow’s attack last season but now he is an occasional liability, coughing up penalties against Toulon in Europe and the Dragons in the league that were respectively petulant and just plain dumb.
Stuart Hogg has been out for months and he will make a difference when he is back to his best. His absence also had a knock-on effect, with Sean Maitland looking less than comfortable filling in for Hogg at fullback. Glasgow could do with the injured Alex Dunbar’s solidity shoring up the midfield after Mark Bennett was again caught too narrow on Friday.
All these things are important but above all else Glasgow need to capture their old swagger and self-belief and, in the circumstances, that won’t be easy.