THE realisation crept up on me slowly. I was watching Glasgow play Munster at the tail end of last season and it dawned on me that it was the first time in the last decade that I had watched a Scottish professional team take on the Irish giants expecting them to win.
Glasgow have come a long way over the last ten years and forwards coach Shade Munro has been there every step of the way.
The one-time Scotland lock was something of the class clown in his playing days, when he appeared to treat the game with the same cheery irreverence that he applied to every other facet of life. Like the old Irish saying has it, the situation may have been critical but it was never serious.
Munro was probably the last person anyone expected to scale the heights of the professional coaching ladder but a mixture of good fortune – being available when Glasgow were looking – and good results with the Premier One club Glasgow Hawks, saw the big man make the step into the Warriors’ ranks way back in 2003 and he has been there ever since, the one constant in a club that has reinvented itself several times over.
“I think when Sean [Lineen, the former coach] was here he was a winner,” Munro explains about the evolution of the club. “He refused to accept that we couldn’t beat every team and, even when we lost, he still believed and that’s what came across. You can’t bullshit when it comes to that sort of stuff.
“Over the years we began to believe that we could win and we did start to win. We recruited well and we increased the strength of the squad but, ten years ago, we didn’t expect to win an away game, let alone beat Munster. The difference between a home and an away game is almost gone. We expect to win every game. We expected to beat Toulon and we expect to beat Exeter, although I think it will be a close game.”
Glasgow fell to earth with a bump when Toulon put six tries past a defence that had conceded just two in the league to date. It was a painful lesson as Munro’s forward pack were posted missing in action. It is a point that he concedes, especially in the opening first 40 minutes when Toulon played some scorching-hot, full-court, all-singing, all-dancing rugby.
But, when a team of world superstars hits their straps in quite such spectacular style, there is a danger of thinking that Glasgow were powerless to do anything about it. Glasgow’s impotence in the face of the first-half onslaught was as much down to their own collective collapse as it was to any brilliance on behalf of the home team.
“You don’t normally go over the tapes [of the game] that much but, when you lose by 50 points, you can’t stop looking at it,” says Munro, who is clearly haunted by the experience. “You think you wouldn’t look at it at all but you actually look at it over and over and over again, thinking ‘God almighty’.
“They were so clinical and fast at the breakdown. We had analysed them more than any other team because it was such a big game for Glasgow. They [Toulon] play a particular way in every single game but they didn’t play that way against us, they moved the ball.
“Great, because we’ve got a good defence. We don’t want teams to drive against us so the big mental hurdle was that we were going to match them and outdo them in the tight.”
Munro said that having analysed recordings of Toulon’s games in the Top 14 rugby, the French side had driven 95 per cent of their lineout ball: “They kick to the sidelines, drive, get a penalty, kick to the corner, drive get points. That’s the way they play in French rugby.”
But against Glasgow, that all changed.
“The shackles were off, although you might think it would be the other way round for Scottish teams. Toulon played a different way against us and we couldn’t live with it.
“We tried to compete at the breakdown. The team ethic in defence is to tackle low and to compete at the breakdown but the ball had gone before we got a chance to do that. That doesn’t happen in the teams we play against but, funnily enough, we are playing Exeter who are the same – really fast and clinical at the breakdown. Having not been as quick as we should have been last week, it’s obviously a big emphasis this week. We are not good enough to let standards slip and still beat good teams.”
Glasgow have reshuffled their pack – only three players retain the jerseys they wore in France – so you could conclude that the coaches got it wrong first time out. Certainly lock Tim Swinson looked lost in the back row and Rob Harley has been brought in specifically to slow Exeter’s ball at the breakdown. Ed Kalman’s selection at tighthead suggests that Jon Welsh has some homework to do and the pairing of Swinson and Al Kellock in the boiler house only delays a difficult decision.
Jonny Gray has been the stand-out lock but he is still only 19. He has played plenty of rugby and he has been dropped to the bench today. There may come a time when Kellock is no longer worthy of his place and Munro insists that the club’s exceptional skipper is fighting for his place like everyone else.
“We have a plan to develop Jonny Gray and it doesn’t include playing him every week,” says the former lock. “He is the stand-out second row and no one would argue. It’s a difficult one but we’re not going to play a guy who is under-performing even if he is the captain and that’s the same for everyone.”
If that drama will unfold over the course of the season, Glasgow’s Heineken hopes hang on today’s 80 minutes, where this afternoon’s opposition are the diagonal opposite of last Sunday’s Toulon team. Exeter are a side without a superstar, England flanker Tom Johnson the closest they come to a “household” name. You check your ego at the door when you arrive at the West Country club and they are none the worse for it. The team ethic is all, they are a hard-working, efficient, workmanlike side that earned their bonus point try against the Blues after 30 minutes.
“They are all good players but there are no superstars,” says Munro. “Dean Mumm is an Australian international but he’s not a star and he sums up Exeter. They are more than the sum of all their parts. They are very strong as a unit, which is why they are doing well.”
In other words, Glasgow are playing an English version of themselves and, as their long-serving forwards coach knows, that is no longer an easy proposition.