IF GLASGOW are to rub shoulders with Europe’s elite in the final eight of the Champions Cup they are going to have to get there by the hard route.
The north face of the Eiger rather than the cable car. They have visited the Rec before and come off second best.
Back in 2009, a Glasgow side sporting a young Ruaridh Jackson at ten and brothers Thom and Max Evans in the backs gave Bath the fright of their lives before losing 35-31 despite scoring five tries. Thom Evans grabbed a hat-trick and Jackson performed brilliantly with an interception try on his Heineken Cup debut. It seemed that the stand-off and his club where on the cusp of greatness, although neither has arrived just yet.
Earlier in this season’s tournament Gregor Towsend talked of another game against English opposition two years ago, when Glasgow raced into a 15-0 lead against Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens before Saints hit back with four tries of their own. The Glasgow coach insisted that his team’s self-belief had grown since then, improved confidence enabling them to get the job done away from home, as happened in their 15-13 win at Montpellier in October.
Certainly Glasgow are improved from those days but they are missing some key personnel today and, largely thanks to the largesse of owner Bruce Craig, Bath have one of the strongest squads south of the Border. They certainly boast one of the biggest budgets in the Premiership, and they have the advantage of playing in front of 10,000 rabid rugby locals. What’s more, they were stung by Glasgow’s 37-10 victory at Scotstoun. Bath boast the best defensive record in the league and forewarned is forearmed – they won’t concede another five tries. Most importantly, Bath have experienced Glasgow up close and personal and now know what to expect.
In fact just about every omen and oracle points to a home win. It is something that Mark Bennett happily concedes but, if the Glasgow centre is losing much sleep over the fact, he hides it pretty well.
“They do have the wind in their sails”, he agrees amiably. “They are a great rugby side and they are scoring some great tries. I think they have the best defence in the Premiership [they do in points conceded, second best in tries conceded] so it’s a huge challenge but that is great for us because we need to put ourselves up against the best. They had a few injuries in the squad that weekend [at Scotstoun] and they are going to be stronger now. They are going to be fired up, that was not what anyone was expecting, so they are going to be ready for it and, at home, they are not going to want to lose this one.
“It’s great to beat any English side, they are always well talked about in the press so it’s nice for us to silence them. That was something that we looked at [before the Scotstoun game]. No one was expecting anything from us. It was a case of Bath were going to come up here and they were on form, playing great rugby and they were just going to keep that momentum going.
“But it’s no different now. Again they played great rugby last weekend, they have played really well in the league in the last few weeks, so it’s a huge challenge but I don’t think it’s one that we can’t overcome.”
Bennett had played European rugby before, but his brace of tries against Bath trumpeted his arrival to the world. The first of them was as good as anything seen in the competition. Taking a switch-ball from Duncan Weir at stand-off, Bennett beat two men to reach the try line and carried another two over it with him. It was sensational and must have contributed to the centre winning his first Scotland cap against Argentina in the autumn.
One week later, Bennett twanged his hamstring against New Zealand and last weekend’s home win over Montpellier was his first game in Glasgow colours since that injury. Sidelined for two months, it is asking an awful lot of the young centre to pick up where he left off, especially given the quality of today’s opposition. The Glasgow centres – Alex Dunbar and Bennett – will line up opposite Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph, with Sam Burgess waiting to make an impact off the bench. Bennett will have his hands full if Bath’s back division get some good front-foot ball because they scored four tries in Toulouse last weekend and another four against Glasgow today would all but guarantee Bath a place in the last eight. As for Burgess, well, Bennett has a plan.
“We are a low-tackling side and, if he runs at me, I’m not going anywhere other than his ankles,” he says of the former England rugby league superstar. “It would just be stupid, he’s twice the size of me!
“It’s great to have someone of that calibre playing. He’s been talked about a lot and, in the last few weeks, he’s been playing some really good rugby as well, beginning to find a bit of form. That just adds to the challenge and satisfaction of going down there to beat them.”
Might Bennett’s footwork and pace give him an edge over the bigger man in attack?
“The best thing for evasion is fear,” comes the response. “I won’t be going anywhere near him, that’s for sure.”
Bennett offers this tactical advice with a smile on his face. Whatever happens this afternoon, the young Scottish centre is more likely to spread panic in the opposition ranks than suffer stage fright himself. He insists that Glasgow should have beaten Toulouse and he expects his team to go one better this afternoon.
“This is another one we can just go out and have the confidence that we can win it.”
If confidence alone won matches Glasgow would already be home and dry with Bennett on board.
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