GLASGOW are on a run of three consecutive wins, and if they can stretch that sequence to nine they will be Pro12 champions. The trouble is, there isn’t a great deal of margin of error.
Although Gregor Townsend’s side have what looks like a kind run-in, certainly in comparison to that of Ulster, their guests at Scotstoun on Friday, their challenge is to finish ahead of both Munster and Ulster because failure to do so will result in the dreaded away semi-final, a barrier that no side has overcome since the play-offs came into being in 2010.
To do that will probably require more than just the seven-day Irish double they hope to complete in three days’ time. Edinburgh, Treviso and Zebre are the other hurdles remaining, and Glasgow, inevitably, are tiptoeing into each game making very few declarations – even after sacking the citadel of Thomond Park.
“We’re aware that the next game is our biggest game of the season and Ulster had a good win at Connacht, so we need to be at our best,” said defence coach Matt Taylor, refusing to allow the team’s 22-5 victory over Munster on their own patch to alter his outlook. “I think if we can manage to put in a good performance it will push us up the table and maybe put us in a position where we can finish the season second. That’s what we are hoping.”
Taylor won’t say it but we can: he should be proud of that win in Limerick, a defensive master-class, because Munster’s five points was their lowest tally in any match since October 2009. Glasgow have conceded only 17 tries this season, the best record in the league.
“Defence is a big part of what we are all about at Glasgow,” added the Queenslander. “I think defence often wins you games and it wins you championships. In the last couple of games we’ve been pretty good in that area. For a club to go over there and win at Munster, which we haven’t done since 2008, was a good achievement and for the other guys that were here at the Melrose Sevens…it was a great day for the club.”
Taylor was at least forthcoming when asked if the scoreless second half on Saturday, when they “scrambled” to protect their lead, represented Glasgow’s most impressive period of rugby this season.
“I’d probably say it was, yeah. We’ve just had another good look at it and I think we still conceded six line breaks, which isn’t great, but what sets us apart maybe from other teams is our ability to scramble and get back and fight for one another and make sure our line isn’t crossed.
“I think we did that really well and the amount of turnovers we produced was great as well. I think we forced about 20 and to do that against a team like Munster, which is renowned for not turning over any ball, was great,” said Taylor, who will pass the onus this week back to Townsend, because it will be up to the head coach to figure out how to unlock Ulster’s own mean rearguard.
“Ulster have got a very good defence. They kick the ball quite a lot, they don’t like playing a lot in their own half, so we expect a strong kicking game from them,” added Taylor. “They’ve got a good lineout and good players in their group so we’re expecting a tough game. They’ve still got to play Munster and Leinster as well, so I think both teams understand it’s a huge game.
“I think you’re only as good as your last game so we need to perform at a really high level to ensure that we beat Ulster on the weekend. We usually prepare one week ahead, as coaches, and we’ve got a good idea of how they play, their strengths.
“They’ve had a tough couple of weeks, they had two losses and they’re out of the Heineken Cup, but then they put on a superb display on Friday night which we watched very closely. They’re a very good side and like I said, we’re going to have to be at our best. In saying that, they’re going to have to deal with us as well. I think if we can play to the same sort of intensity as we did at the weekend, any side is going to find it hard to play against us.”
Glasgow are buoyant, knowing they have the cushion of a strong squad to see them through the remaining games, but the damage done in mid-season still leaves them without much breathing space. Lose to the league’s second-placed team this weekend and the Ospreys in fifth will start to feel a lot closer than is comfortable. Besides, there really is a colossal emphasis on the importance of not only reaching the semi-finals, but winning the right to play one at home.
“I think in any competition you often find, statistically, if you can manage to have a home semi you’ve got a better chance of progressing through,” Taylor acknowledged. “That’s what we’re striving for, but, again, it’s a game-by-game proposition. We’re treating this game as the biggest game of our season, the most important for us, and we want to keep the momentum of the last three or four games going.”
18 April: Treviso (H) 1700
2 May: Ulster (A) 1930
10 May: Edinburgh (H) 1830
18 April: Glasgow (A) 1935
2 May: Leinster (H) 1930
10 May: Munster (A) 1830
19 April: Connacht (A) 1815
3 May: Edinburgh (A) 1700
10 May: Ulster (H) 1830
18 April: Ulster (H) 1935
26 April: Edinburgh (H) 1905
2 May: Treviso (A) 1900
10 May: Zebre (H) 1830
20 April: Dragons (A) 1645
1 May: Zebre (A) 1700
10 May: Connacht (H) 1830
Semi-finals: 16, 17, 18 May