SET against their admirable consistency in the domestic league is Glasgow’s equal but rather less admirable consistency in European competition. While they have been there or thereabouts in the Pro12 for the last few seasons, Glasgow have always watched the knockout stages of Europe on television rather than taking a more active involvement. Never mind space, European rugby is the final frontier for Glasgow’s enterprising rugby.
Last season’s double loss to the Cardiff Blues in the Heineken Cup arguably marked the low point of Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow career coming, as it did, in the wake of an incident involving players in a kebab shop which will be the subject of a forthcoming trial. It may be that European failure has led to, or at least aided, Glasgow’s good domestic form. With finite resources at his disposal, does Townsend have a decision to make – where best to concentrate his firepower if his side lose their opener against Bath on Saturday?
“No,” the coach, pictured, is adamant. “We wouldn’t have that as a philosophy. We have a responsibility to play well and put our best team out and try and win so no, that would never come into our minds.”
He has every reason to go into the opening tie with optimism because lately Glasgow have been back at their free-scoring best of two seasons ago when they ran in more tries than any other team in the league. Ahead of yesterday’s match, Glasgow were scoring at a rate of 4.2 tries per game (compared to 2.4 last season) but set against that is a leaky defence that conceded three scores to Connacht and two to Treviso, neither club renowned for the irresistible nature of their offence.
Glasgow’s very excellence has been built upon the foundation stone of defence but Bath will arrive in Glasgow on Saturday packing some pretty potent weapons in the form of centre Kyle Eastmond, full-back Anthony Watson and the Fijian-born (but English qualified) flier Semesa Rokoduguni on the wing. All the above will be orchestrated beautifully by George Ford, the man many believe should be England’s stand-off come next year’s World Cup. If Glasgow want to make their mark in Europe, here is their chance. As Townsend rightly points out: “It’s the premier competition for a reason – you get all the best clubs taking part.” His team take great pride in stopping the opposition from scoring but Glasgow may have got into the Christmas spirit a tad early, showing uncharacteristic generosity to weaker opposition than Bath.
“We know we have to be better,” concedes Townsend. “We pride ourselves on the way we defend, and the systems we put in place and the aggression, the tackle completion and the pressure we put on the ball post tackle. You are right, we haven’t had those high standards in the last few weeks.
“It was very good in the opening two games against Leinster and Cardiff as well, when we earned penalties through our defence, but in the last two weeks it’s dropped a couple of notches and we need to get that back, certainly in Europe.”
Defence isn’t Townsend’s only concern because, at the risk of edging into “the wrong kind of snow” territory, Glasgow may have been scoring the “wrong kind of tries” this season. All too many of them have owed more to a poacher’s instinct than careful, painstaking and sweat-inducing construction.
The opening 40 minutes of the season was the exception when Glasgow blew Leinster clean out of the water with a display of high-tempo, unstoppable rugby that produced three quick-fire scores in the space of 20 minutes. Since then Glasgow have profited from opposition mistakes, seizing upon interceptions, turnovers, poor kicks and so on for many of their touchdowns rather than creating them as a result of their own excellence and accuracy in attack.
Sean Lamont stole the ball against Cardiff and had the beating of the one man between him and the try line. Niko Matawalu and DTH van der Merwe have both snaffled interceptions, while Tommy Seymour benefited against Treviso when the ball squirted out of a ruck inside the Glasgow 22. They all count and Stuart Hogg’s second try against Connacht was a thing of rare beauty but Bath will be less likely to bestow Glasgow with the same gifts that some Pro12 teams have given them this season.
“I would probably disagree with you,” argues Townsend. “We scored two scrum tries against Connacht and two lineout tries from first phase against the Dragons. There are a variety of sources of possession that we score from and, if our defence gets a try, that is probably even more satisfying than scoring off a set piece. We have grabbed our opportunities this year. That’s been great for the players – if there is a chance for a try they are taking it.”
Bath are the coming force in English rugby, thanks to the largesse of their owner Bruce Craig. They have excellence throughout and the strike runners to give Matt Taylor the cold sweats but this is European rugby and for all the excellence out wide this match might yet boil down to the set piece. They should win their own lineout ball but just how good is the Glasgow scrum? It’s a question that Bath’s David Wilson and Paul James are sure to ask.
The pair of international props are pure scrummagers. In the absence of Dan Cole, Wilson is England’s go-to tighthead while James has always been considered a better set piece player than his Welsh rival Gethin Jenkins. They will have noted that Connacht won a penalty try against Glasgow from an attacking scrum and Bath are not the sort to allow any opposition weakness go unexamined. Glasgow’s own injured duo, Ryan Grant and Jon Welsh, should be back in action next week… but in the BT Premiership rather than for Glasgow, not on their return.
It is perfectly possible to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe after losing a pool match at home – Saracens did just that last season – but you wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.
Glasgow need to beat one of England’s finest on Saturday if they want a better view of the play-offs than that afforded by a television screen.