GLASGOW are poised to freshen up their midfield against Leinster tomorrow in a bid to reach a first RaboDirect PRO12 Final.
Head coach Gregor Townsend has rotated players across his back division in recent weeks in order to provide opportunities for various players to push themselves into contention for this weekend’s semi-final and, he hopes, a final, but also to surprise Leinster in the Royal Dublin Society Showground tomorrow afternoon.
Peter Horne has been one of the Warriors’ stand-out players in the midfield this season and despite Ruaridh Jackson claiming the Man of the Match award against Connacht last week, he gave way to Horne at stand-off late in the game. The pacy 23-year-old has only started at fly-half once for Glasgow, in a 20-14 win over Ulster in February, but he has moved into the pivotal role on a number of occasions and brought a different attacking threat to Glasgow’s back line.
He remains arguably the most potent inside centre, however, while Graeme Morrison, Alex Dunbar and Sean Lamont have also all been pushing for the centre berths, with Sean Maitland, DTH van der Merwe and Stuart Hogg all expected to be back in harness in Glasgow’s most potent back three.
After twice losing narrowly to Leinster, 6-0 at Scotstoun in November and 22-17 six weeks ago, Townsend and his assistant Matt Taylor and Shade Munro have been tweaking the gameplan to exploit perceived Leinster weaknesses on this occasion. With the team not to be announced until today, the coaches remained tight-lipped yesterday on the line-up.
What Munro did say, however, was that the key to victory may lie less in Glasgow’s selection and more in a heightened belief across the 23-man squad from this time last year. They travelled to the Royal Dublin Society Showground for their second semi-final in three years, having beaten Leinster at that venue 23-19 six months earlier, but were down 19-3 before fighting back in the last 15 minutes to a 19-15 final result.
Munro, the only coach who remains from last year’s campaign, said: “I think they didn’t quite believe that they could win it until 20 minutes from the end. Waiting to see how the game pans out doesn’t make you a winner; you have to win the game from the start, and that’s kind of what happened last year.
“But the belief this year has changed. We expect to win games, expect to win away from home, and don’t fear anyone. In the past we possibly feared the likes of Leinster and Munster away from home, but that doesn’t happen now.
“Changes in personnel have helped that. Sean Maitland and Josh Strauss have come from winning backgrounds, as has Matt Taylor. And having people in the squad who know how to win does rub off on people. We have players who have been there for a long number of years and haven’t won something, who have got to semi-finals but not crossed that line, but with belief they have improved as a team, as a squad.
“What we have to watch is that because they have been in two semi-finals and improved this year they think that they deserve to win this time; that it’s their turn. Obviously, we don’t let them think like that. This is a huge game for them to play in. But they have to win this year, I think; we are there to win, and will do everything in our power to do that.”
There has been a clear difference in the way Glasgow play this season. After years of knocking on the door and not getting there, due to inconsistency, Munro and former coach Sean Lineen moved away from their preferred expansive style and became more pragmatic, and it worked by pushing the Warriors into the semi-finals in 2010 and 2012. However, with the increased firepower and creativity of Maitland, Strauss, Niko Matawalu and Sean Lamont added to the side, new coaches Townsend and Taylor have been able to launch their era with a fresh attacking approach.
Munro admitted: “Part of the gameplan last year was not to play rugby in our home half and we practised a lot of exit plays, kick-chase and making the opposition play in their own half, and territory-wise we won that battle pretty much every time we played. And we kicked over 80 per cent of our penalties.
“That was the main reason for our success last year, that we made ourselves difficult to beat. That still remains the case but we now are in a position to score more tries, and play further back in the pitch, which does make a difference.”
The result has been a try count up from 34 last season to 66 this term, and genuine threats that will worry Leinster coach Joe Schmidt in his final weeks as Leinster boss before he takes over the Ireland reins. “I would hope so,” said Townsend. “Munster are a great side and we maybe got a bit lucky with a couple of our tries, but we scored 50 points against them and the Ospreys game [won 35-17] was probably the best we’ve played against a team that were champions and had to win [to reach play-offs].
“Joe Schmidt did say after our last game that he hoped they would not meet us again in the competition. Whether he meant that 100 percent or not ... I’d like to think he did because we’ve given them two very good games this year and I’m sure this will be another one.”