GREGOR Townsend has not been afraid to change a winning team all season and he wasn’t going to change his ways ahead of this evening’s all-important RaboDirect final against Leinster in Dublin.
There are two new faces in the starting 15 compared to the side that beat Munster by one point in that nail-biting semi-final at Scotstoun two weeks ago.
Mark Bennett is replaced in the midfield by Peter Horne with Alex Dunbar shuffling from 12 to 13 to accommodate him at inside centre. In the front row, Gordon Reid is preferred to Lions tourist Ryan Grant after proving a more than able deputy for much of the semi-final.
“Gordon has played really well,” said Townsend. “He played well up to the semi-final and he took his opportunity in the semi-final. We were pleased with what Ryan did, but Gordon played a bit longer. We know we have strength there. Peter [Horne] has played well since he got back from his injury. He offers something different tactically, a left-foot kicking option and another first receiver, someone to help Finn through the game having played at ten himself.
“It is unlucky on Mark Bennett, who has played well. Having Peter there gives us a kicking option, a second-receiver option. We had that at the Royal Dublin Showground early in the season, with Finn [Russell] at 12 outside Ruaridh [Jackson].”
Townsend has almost always selected twin playmakers when he can. While the introduction of the compact Horne into the midfield won’t see Glasgow blast any holes in the bombproof Leinster defence, the inside centre is one of the smarter bears around and his ability to deliver the telling pass could be the key to unlock the Dublin defence, especially given Townsend’s claim that Leinster are using more line speed and bigger gaps between defenders. So Glasgow will have very little time on the ball but there will be holes to exploit if Horne is on the money.
Dunbar has been Scotland’s find of the season and his flexibility gives his coach options. Townsend confirmed that the former Annan man was moved to the outside centre berth at least partly to keep a lid on some fella called Brian O’Driscoll, whoever he is.
“Alex Dunbar has played really well for us at 12 and 13. He played well against O’Driscoll at 13 this year and had a fantastic game for Scotland over there. Yes, that is one reason why he is at 13.”
O’Driscoll is not the only one making his farewell appearance. Ruaridh Jackson, Moray Low and Chris Cusiter are all playing their last game for Glasgow today, with fans and pundits alike still trying to get their heads around why Townsend allowed his number one No 9 to sign for Sale.
One player who isn’t leaving, if you take Townsend at his word, is Stuart Hogg, despite the British and Irish Lions full-back finding himself surplus to requirements for the second time in succession. “He is here next year,” said his current coach, although many would question that after Hogg was allegedly caught talking to Ulster Rugby with one more year left on his contract.
After coming close in recent years, Glasgow lost to the same opposition at the same ground at the semi-final stage in each of the last two seasons. Could this be the year when Glasgow go one better and actually beat Leinster in front of their own fans?
“I think so,” said a remarkably relaxed Townsend. “We came very close last year in the semi-final, when we hit the post to take it into extra time. It was a cracking game, probably our best of the season. You have to play at your very best when you take on teams like Leinster.
“This year was also pretty close over there. It was 28-25 and we had opportunities near the end. At home, we had a fantastic defensive display and played really well with the ball in hand. We realise we have to be at our best. Looking at where we have been in the last few weeks, we believe that will be enough to win the game.”
Townsend looked confident and relaxed as he talked about his team’s chances this evening but most of his work has been done already. As the clock winds down to kick-off, the players increasingly take charge of events and there is little else he can do to influence things from here.
Scottish rugby’s off-field activities received a huge boost in midweek with the news of the BT deal. All that is required now is for that success to be mirrored on the pitch, the one place where Scotland’s clubs have struggled throughout 18 long years of professional rugby. What would a first win for the Scottish pro-teams mean for Townsend?
“Personally, I would just be so thrilled for the players,” comes the response. “It was such a pleasure to see them win the semi-final because of the effort they put in, so I imagine the emotion will be similar to that night. I think it would be a huge boost for Scottish rugby. The buzz created by going to a semi-final is very similar to what Edinburgh did two years ago in the Heineken Cup. We want to give it our best shot and do all we can to win.”
TEAMS FOR PRO12 FINAL (Saturday, 6:15pm)
LEINSTER RUGBY: R Kearney, McFadden, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Kirchner, Gopperth, Reddan; Healy, Cronin, Ross, Toner, McCarthy, Ruddock, Jennings, Heaslip (captain). Subs: Dundon, McGrath, Moore, Cullen, O’Brien, Boss, Madigan, Fanning.
GLASGOW WARRIORS: Murchie, Maitland, Dunbar, Horne, Seymour, Russell, Cusiter; Reid, Hall, Welsh, Gray, Kellock (captain), Harley, Fusaro, Strauss. Subs: MacArthur, Grant, Low, Swinson, Nakarawa, Matawalu, Jackson, Lamont.