Gregor Townsend: A month to shape Glasgow’s season

Glasgow's Colin Gregor is tackled by Maleli Kunavore of Toulouse during their European Cup match in 2009. Picture: AFP/Getty
Glasgow's Colin Gregor is tackled by Maleli Kunavore of Toulouse during their European Cup match in 2009. Picture: AFP/Getty
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WE have a huge month of rugby ahead of us, which starts with our two European Rugby Champions Cup ties with Toulouse, progresses with a visit to Scotstoun of the Guinness Pro12 leaders Munster, then ends with the two legs of the 1872 Cup against Edinburgh Rugby. There is no doubt that the four weeks ahead will go a long way to shaping our season.

But while everyone at the club is very excited about that prospect, all our focus has been on making sure we are ready to produce our best possible performance at the Stade Ernest Wallon this Sunday afternoon, when we meet Guy Noves’ side in our Pool Four European Rugby Champions Cup tie.

After the hectic period at the end of the Autumn Internationals and the resumption of the Pro12, it has been a benefit to us this week to have the extra day of preparation.

This has allowed us to integrate our Scotland contingent back into training and the intensity of the work done on the field during these last few days has reflected the relish with which the group are approaching taking on one of the truly great clubs of European rugby.

Our No 1 priority will be to keep our discipline and make sure we do everything we can to make things difficult for Toulouse. In order to win in France we will have to produce an outstanding defensive display, and this is an area we’ve been working hard to improve this week. We set ourselves a high standard in the way we defend and we’ve not reached those standards over the last couple of weeks.

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Defence is a combination of a number of elements – tackle technique, line speed, systems, awareness, fitness and communication – but any successful defensive performance is as much about the collective attitude and desire of the players to make tackle after tackle than it is about the necessary technical or tactical requirements. Our players enjoy this part of the game and we expect to see them deliver a Test match level defensive performance on Sunday.

With the foundations of good discipline and defence in place we can make inroads into wrestling the momentum from our opponents, which is such a crucial factor when playing a French team.

Momentum brings French crowds into life and allows sides to play with a flow and a rhythm that enables them to show their undoubted strengths.

Toulouse have the biggest pack in world rugby, bigger indeed than any international side, so we know that our ability to chop down strong runners like Edwin Maka, Joe Tekori and Louis Picamoles will be very important.

Our scum will again need to be strong, and our recent performances against Treviso and the Dragons have been very encouraging in that regard.

Our players will be asked to lift the bar again when facing the likes of Census Johnston, Guthro Steenkamp and Nemiah Tialata, who are Samoa, South Africa and New Zealand internationalists respectively, and who form a very experienced and heavy front-row.

Toulouse, like the other two sides in our pool – Montpellier and Bath – make very good use of the line-out drive and that is an area that we are going to have to defend very well.

There is no doubt that the confrontation at the set-piece will have a huge bearing on the contest.

In January 2009 Glasgow enjoyed a famous 33-26 victory in Toulouse, in one of our club’s finest European results. Given the recent wet weather in the south of France, I’m not sure we’ll see such an open and fast-paced game like six years ago, but every game has its own story and it will be fascinating to see how this encounter will unfold. In many ways, Toulouse play a similar style of rugby to Montpellier and one that is well established in the Top 14. They have some fantastic individual players like Vincent Clerc, Maxime Medard and two very experienced operators at stand-off, in former All Black Luke McAlister and Englishman Toby Flood.

Toulouse players are brought up in a games-based training environment from an early age, and their recognition of space and decision-making, on and off the ball, is usually excellent.

They can be devastating from turnover attack and returning kicks from deep – especially if the defence sits back and does not have a unified line. We are well aware of the dangers they pose.

Of course, we have worked hard at finding where the opportunities will be for us on Sunday up against a side like Toulouse and the challenge that awaits us in France is one we are looking forward to. It’s also exciting to play the same side six days later back in Glasgow, and we aim to learn as much about our opponents during the 80 minutes this weekend as possible.

Away from European action I’d just like to mention the return to action of Mike Cusack.

Everyone at Glasgow has been delighted for Mike that he has recovered from injury and illness and has been able to return to the field of play with Currie in last week’s game against my old club Gala.

When I first arrived at Glasgow, Mike was in outstanding form in which his scrummaging was of the highest standard, only for injury and illness to force him off the rugby field for much of the last two years.

Now he has taken a big step forward on his road back and everyone at Glasgow wishes him well as he continues his return to full fitness.

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