Coach Townsend focusing on the game rather than the occasion as Warriors aim to collect their first-ever major title in Belfast
In the world of music there is second album syndrome but, in sport, it is often the case that things flow better at the next time of asking,
“We feel Al Kellock’s presence or impact at the end of the game will help us win”Gregor Townsend
Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend certainly hopes the lessons learned from last year’s 34-12 loss to Leinster in the Guinness Pro12 final can help propel the Warriors to a historic maiden major title for a Scottish side.
Standing in their way at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast this evening is the might of Munster – a team for whom winning trophies is in the DNA. The two-times European champions are going for their fourth title in this competition and will have the lion’s share of the crowd but Townsend is confident is team is ready to go one better than 12 months ago in Dublin.
“We’ll be in a better position with our experience. Whether that leads us to win, we’ll see,” said Townsend at Scotstoun yesterday before the squad departed for Belfast.
“What I have seen from this group is that they have learned from previous experiences. The way they came back at the weekend showed they can take a bit of adversity and challenge, yet still work out a way to win.
“We’ve gone away and won in France this year, from missing out the year before. So I have seen people in this group in similar situations, figuring out a way to win. That will be the way to go on Saturday.”
The former Scotland and Lions stand-off added: “We’ve changed a little bit. I think there was so much emotion after last year’s semi-final. Reaching our first final, it was such a great night against Munster.
“There was a great build-up to the day and it was obviously nice to have the feeling of getting to a final. But we’ve really put that to the side this week. It’s been about preparing, knowing the opposition, knowing our plan and sticking to that in times of challenge during the game.
“We had some great training sessions leading up to [last year’s] final. But I believe we weren’t ready for the final – the occasion itself affected maybe some of the decision-making –and I include the coach as well as the players on that. I firmly believe we’ll be ready for the game this time. I’m very confident we’ll see a much more focused team. But, even with that, it’ll be a really tough game.”
Prop Gordon Reid, who starts tonight, spoke earlier in the week that he felt, personally, that he got too hyped up for last year’s final and was burned out by kick-off. Townsend said: “‘I think what Gordon meant was that we had burned a lot of nervous energy.
“We had a long build-up to that game but didn’t do too much during the week.
“The occasion – and I was as much to do with that as the supporters – was maybe we built it up too much, talking about the achievement and what it would mean to win a final, rather than just treating it as another game.
“I won’t make many changes to the final build-up. There are a couple of things we added in last year, the night before the game – we won’t be doing that this year.
“We’ve shown this year, when we’ve prepared well and trained well, we’ve been consistent in our performances.
“Yes, it will take an extra effort to win a final. But you can’t think too much beyond that. You have to think about what will win us the game.”
If, as many expect, this evening’s match is as tight and tense an affair as last Friday’s 16-14 semi-final win over Ulster, then having the talismanic presence of club captain Al Kellock coming off the bench in his last appearance for the club could provide that crucial push to victory. After departing with a head knock in the first half of the semi-final, there were concerns that Kellock may not make the squad at all, but he is on the bench and expected to play a part.
Townsend said: “It was a big selection decision. We feel Al’s presence or impact at the end of the game will help us win. I had to speak to the players on Tuesday morning. He was the first one I spoke to and he’s been terrific.
“He got behind the team as you would expect and he’s very motivated to get on the field.
“He was on concussion protocol. By the time we started training as a team he’d got back into training with the team as well.”
Leone Nakarawa, who replaced Kellock last week, retains his place in the starting XV and the coach said: “Leone brings lots to the game. I thought he was outstanding in the last 20 minutes against Ulster.
“He carried the ball three or four times in the lead up to our try, in those 15 phases. Setpiece-wise, he’s excellent in delivery from the lineout. He’s very fit and he will complement Jonny [Gray].”
There are also changes in the back-row, where Rob Harley returns at blindside, Ryan Wilson starts for the first time since returning from his three-month ban following an assault conviction and Josh Strauss moves to No 8 from where he will captain the side. Adam Ashe misses out.
“We know Rob Harley will be fresh,” explained Townsend. “That’s a big factor in the selection. We’ve seen how attritional those last two semi-finals have been and Munster have lost a couple of players to injury. We’ve lost one in Ryan Grant.
“Rob was very consistent for us for most of the season and was one of the first names on the team sheet. We believe that, playing against this Munster team, he’ll be the perfect foil for what we expect them to do.
“On form, Ryan Wilson has done really well the last two weeks and he is also fresh. We know the reasons why.
“Chris [Fusaro] just misses out. He’s recovered well from the injury he picked up last week and we see him making a big impact when he comes on. And it’s really unlucky for Adam Ashe, who had been playing well but, with Harley coming back in, someone has to miss out and unfortunately for Adam it’s him.”
Townsend’s Munster counterpart Anthony Foley has made three changes from the side that beat Ospreys to reach the final. Having failed a late fitness test captain Peter O’Mahony [hip] is unavailable for selection, while injury also rules out Conor Murray. The Ireland scrum-half met with a specialist on Thursday and is out for six weeks. Simon Zebo has successfully completed his return-to-play protocols to start on the left wing. In O’Mahony’s absence, Denis Hurley will lead Munster.
Ireland skipper Paul O’Connell – who Townsend yesterday described as “one of the best forwards to play the game” – takes his place at lock for his last Munster appearance before an expected move to Toulon after 14 glorious years with the province.