DRAWING positives from Glasgow’s opening Heineken Cup match in Toulon may appear an invidious exercise, but as the squad return to training today at Scotstoun there will be a measure of confidence to be taken from their four tries in Stade Mayol.
In last season’s six pool games they managed just seven tries in total – Edinburgh managed just three – and as the game has evolved in recent years tries have again become king, certainly to those who progress in tournaments.
DTH van der Merwe knows the value of tries, having scored 30 since joining Glasgow four years ago, 25 in the Celtic League and five now in Europe, to set a club record. And the Canadian’s touchdowns in a 51-28 defeat in Toulon may prove to be his most important yet.
Van der Merwe came off the bench at half-time for Henry Pyrgos as coach Gregor Townsend switched Niko Matawalu to scrum-half, and within two minutes he had broken the Toulon defence to enliven both the Warriors and a game that had till then been thoroughly one-sided.
By the time he had scored again, just 22 minutes later, the fervent Toulonnais, le Fadas de Toulon, were decidedly uneasy. Following Jonny Gray and Matawalu over the line, it unearthed a bonus point and brought Toulon within 13 points. The home team acted swiftly and decisively to shut the creaking door, converting a penalty to ease themselves back to a three-score lead and then adding a sixth try through Giteau.
That dented the mood in the Glasgow camp, but Van der Merwe admitted that the squad had drawn some comfort from their ability to finish off chances against the reigning Heineken Cup champions.
“I guess it’s alright to score two tries but it’s not the result that we wanted,” he said. “It’s good to get that bonus point and to feel that I helped that in the second half.
“The second half certainly showed what we can do. We let them play too much in the first half and the guys got a bollocking in the changing room, but they stepped up in the second half. You don’t know if Toulon gave up a little bit with a lead of 34 points, but we’re happy with the second half.
“They still got another try and we pride ourselves on our defence so we’ll just have to do better next week.
“But the bonus point is massive. Any point away from home is important and we’re just glad to get that bonus point at the defending Heineken Cup champions, and we’ll see at the end of the pool stages how important that was.
“The chat at half-time wasn’t about bonus points, it was more about us showing who we are and what we pride ourselves on. But once we got the first try and then the second, guys were then saying on the field ‘listen, let’s push for this bonus point because it’s going to be important at the end of the season’.
“I think we were more able to follow our game-plan then and attack them out wide. Obviously, that starts with the set-piece and our forwards winning the ball up front, and we’ve got some good hands in the backs and managed to find some space.
“It’s a lesson – don’t let a team play and see what they’ve got before you fire your guns. Let’s go out and make a stand from the start of the game.”
Strangely, Toulon experienced a similar affair at home last season when they scored seven tries against Cardiff but conceded four then too, three in the last 14 minutes. One theory is that for all Toulon’s vast quality and experience, their side is one that revolves around 30-year-plus veterans capable of blowing teams away in the first half but who can run out of steam in the final quarter.
It will be interesting to see how they perform away to the Blues this weekend, a game they edged 22-14 last season, while Warriors supporters should be excited about the prospect of facing them at Scotstoun in January’s final pool match. For Glasgow this week, however, the focus is firmly on the arrival of Exeter, who posted six tries in their 44-29 win over Cardiff on Sunday, the Blues having replied with four in a game almost freakily similar to that which unfolded in Toulon.
Van Der Merwe is acutely aware of the importance of winning this weekend, and he would appear at least to have pushed himself into contention for only a second start of the season. The 27-year-old missed much of the August pre-season due to being on successful World Cup duty with Canada, but he now seems to be up to speed and ready to return to the starting line-up.
“I guess it’s important to make an impact off the bench, and that was my number one goal. When you don’t get selected you want to make the impact off the bench. I haven’t had much game-time this season but it’s a long season and anything can happen, so I just take the chances when they come.”
Warriors coach Townsend has a few selection dilemmas this week, as he works out how much the subdued display of half-backs Pyrgos and Ruaridh Jackson – until the latter’s moment of brilliance for Matawalu’s try – was down to the pack going backwards or their stage-fright, and similarly how many of the back line appeared out of sorts due to being on the back foot.
The front row struggled and we may see changes with Rob Harley available, though Tim Swinson put in a good shift at blindside flanker.
But, one thing is certain. If Glasgow continue to create as they did in Toulon, the Scotstoun faithful will be hoping that their try-scoring Canuck winger is there to provide the finish.