WE HAVE been pleased with our league form and we would like to continue that in Europe,” said Gregor Townsend. “As a player you want to play these kind of games and test yourself against the best in the world.”
The quote did come from the Glasgow head coach, only it came last season before his side travelled to the south of France and shipped 51 points to the reigning champions Toulon. He has said much the same in the week leading up to today’s game against Toulouse. So it begs the question: “What has changed in the intervening 12 months?” Well, plenty if you listen to Townsend now.
“Toulon was exceptional in many ways,” he said last week. “We did not have a go and waited to see what they were going to do. We learned a harsh lesson and, in the second half, were much better. The Montpellier game is a better example of what we might face in that the [Toulouse] pitch is going to be pretty heavy. It looked heavy at the weekend.”
Heavy or light, rain or sunshine, it shouldn’t matter too much. The encouraging sign for the coach is that his team have proved that they have more than one string to their bow. In the opening round against Bath, the swashbuckling Warriors took to the Scotstoun stage and put their visitors to the sword with five tries thanks to an irresistible mix of aggressive defence and slick attack. One week later in Montpellier, there was a glimpse of the Worker Warriors as Glasgow rolled their sleeves up and ground out a narrow victory thanks to five penalties from the unerring boot of stand-off Finn Russell.
It was a complete about turn in tactics, a 180 degree change from the running, passing, ball-in-hand stuff that has become Glasgow’s trademark. The important point was that the Warriors had found a way to win in France, which they had so spectacularly failed to do twelve months previously. If the weather forecast is to be believed, today’s game is going to be more arm wrestle than try-fest.
There has also been a tweak in personnel from that game 12 months ago. Stuart Hogg takes his place at full-back (in place of Sean Maitland, who started against Toulon), Russell has taken over the all-important pivot duties from Ruaridh Jackson and, after Tim Swinson did a duck-out-of-water impression a year ago, Rob Harley takes his rightful place on the blindside flank.
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It has been a belter of a season so far for the ginger-topped Glasgow forward. He started all three of the autumn internationals and finished the series strongly. He has emerged as one of the go-to guys in a strong Glasgow pack and, according to fellow flanker Blair Cowan, he is a prize pain in the bahookey to play against. And that counts as high praise in these parts.
Harley will need to be at his bloody-minded best this afternoon because the workhorse of the Glasgow pack is up against three of the best breakaways to have graced the European game in the last decade. Louis Picamoles has taken a long lease on Sir Chris Hoy’s thighs now the sprint cyclist no longer needs them and the No.8 uses them to run through brick walls, Imanol Harinordoquy has the soft hands of a fairy-liquid fly-half, while Yannick Nyanga is the athlete of the trio. The man would not look out of place in the No.13 shirt.
“Just looking at the players all over their squad there’s a lot of big names, a lot of great players,” says Harley. “I’ve played against a few of their guys before, [Thierry] Dusautoir and Nyanaga and Picamoles, when we played Toulouse a few years ago, and it is a real challenge. It’s great to have that chance to go out and play against some of the greatest players in the world.”
Harley is referring to the weather-affected match of December 2010 when Glasgow landed in Toulouse and their luggage in Timbuktu (for all anyone knew). Unable to play without essentials like gumshields, boots, shorts and shirts, the match was held over for a few days, to much grumbling from the locals. When the tie was finally played on Tuesday evening (it was originally scheduled for Saturday) the hosts’ blood was close to boiling point and Toulouse ran out easy winners by 36-10. “I think we ended up there for five days,” Harley recalls, “but it felt a lot longer because we were without all our proper training kit. We were running about in trainers, we had no contact lenses, it was a strange experience. We didn’t get the result in that game over there but to see the stadium and the set-up, and the atmosphere was incredible so I’m looking forward to going back.
“There is pressure [on Glasgow] and we’ve got the two wins so we have some control over how we do in Europe. As a squad we’ve talked about taking that next step and I think that’s why it’s such a big test for us. You come to the European competitions and you have to prove it against the best so we’re going to go over there this weekend and it gives us a chance to measure the progress we’ve made.”
In all their long history, Glasgow have never progressed to the knockout stage in Europe and they are not going to let this opportunity slip without a fight. The club craves wider recognition beyond the confines of the Guinness Pro12 and know that success in this competition is the best available route. But first they have to subdue Toulouse’s dreadnought pack, a tricky proposition in any conditions.
This year and last, Toulon and Toulouse, Townsend was reading from the same text before heading to France. Glasgow fans will hope that today’s result will give the coach a different song to sing on the return trip.
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