THERE is a growing anticipation around the club ahead of two important European Rugby Champions Cup matches. Especially given the fact that we are still in the European mix as we approach the final two pool games.
It’s a boost that we welcome Montpellier on the back of a hard-fought win in the Guinness Pro 12 against Scarlets and one interesting area for both teams at Scotstoun last Friday was how they managed the adverse weather conditions. The driving wind and rain became a tangible factor in how the game was played.
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It was a particularly bad weekend of weather in the British Isles and there were a number of matches where the weather conditions played a dominant role in proceedings. As rugby is a winter sport, this obviously happens from time to time and you must be proactive at having solutions to making the weather work for you and against your opposition.
So the challenge for us against Scarlets, a team who are really aggressive in defence, was to match that physicality but also, crucially, play the conditions correctly.
We have a template that we follow which we believe produces winning rugby, but we also have certain protocols and principals for playing both wet-weather rugby and in windy conditions, whether facing into the wind or playing with it. At the weekend, we had the double whammy to deal with – playing in wet and windy weather.
The players did very well in terms of the fundamentals of playing winning rugby, that is, getting our defence in place, being disciplined, creating quick ball in attack, getting behind the opposition and having a strong and accurate set-piece. On top of this, we tailored our game to the weather conditions very well.
In cricket, there are times that if you can win the toss you can really control the flow of the game as a consequence of your decision to bat or field.
In contrast, winning the toss in rugby doesn’t usually have much influence in how the game will be played out. The exception to this is when there is a strong wind, such as the south-westerly that was blowing through Scotstoun on Friday night.
Players and coaches have differing opinions on whether to play into the wind in the first half, or choose to go against it for the first 40 minutes.
The theory goes that, if you have the wind behind you, you can build a score and get ahead of a team as the wind should give you territorial advantage and put real pressure on the opposition. Then it might be easier to defend a lead than having to come from behind to win.
For those who prefer to play into the wind, it’s about finishing the first half within touching distance of the opposition, or even better, being ahead on the scoreboard, to then use the wind to put more points on the board in the second half.
In either scenario, everyone is acutely aware that there has to be huge effort invested when playing into the wind.
In winning the toss, we took the challenge of playing into the wind first and recognised that we would have to do a lot of ball carrying, as it was difficult to gain much ground through kicking, and any loss of possession would mean that we’d be quickly back in our third of the field through the kicking of the opposition.
So fitness, effort and a willingness to carry ball were key elements in our approach to that first-half performance and that was something the players did very well.
Possession is key when playing into the wind, and it is vital to take the simple options at set-piece. That can mean taking the easiest options at the line-out and sometimes not going to lineouts. Those watching at the weekend would have seen we took a few quick tap-penalties, because, with the wind so powerful, it is more difficult to throw the ball straight if you decide to kick to touch.
And, while there were inevitable handling errors given the conditions, we played at a high tempo and actually played a lot of rugby in the opposition half. For 38 minutes, our performance was right up there with our second-half display against Munster and our win against Bath back in October.
Even the disappointment of conceding a try so close to half-time didn’t have a great effect, as we were aware that, if we put the same effort in during the second half, the wind would give us the advantage of being able to play more in Scarlets’ territory and better control the outcome of the match. I am sure we will have similar weather conditions before the end of the season, but, right now, the weather forecast looks good and dry for the visit of Montpellier on Sunday and that is great because these are the best conditions to play at pace and produce an attacking game against them, which is exactly what we must do this weekend.
Being a Friday to Sunday turnaround, we have had nine days to prepare and that has given us an opportunity to do more at training, provide adequate rest for the players and give a number of our squad some game time.
So we did this on Tuesday by playing the Scotland under-20s in a 50-minute game which was a really worthwhile exercise. All credit to the under-20s, who played well and improved throughout the game.
They are well organised and there is a toughness in their group which will be required as they take part in the Six Nations and Junior World Cup later this year.
From our perspective, it was great to see Mark Bennett and Murray McConnell back involved, who have both missed the last few weeks with injury.
Now our focus turns to the challenge of Montpellier, and giving ourselves a chance to still qualify for the quarter-finals of the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup.
Having lost our last two games against Toulouse, a lot will depend on how other teams get on in their pool fixtures, but one thing is for sure – at the very least we must win our remaining two games.
It will be a tough game this weekend against a French side full of quality players who now have the South African World Cup-winning coach Jake White at the helm, and so there is definitely a lot of resolve in the Montpellier camp.
This was evidenced in White’s first game in charge when they beat Toulon. Packed full of international players, Montpellier have a strong scrum and lineout drive, are very aggressive in defence, and look to play an offloading game in attack. It should be a cracking game.
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