ONE win in nine years is not a statistic Glasgow coach Sean Lineen is proud of and he believes that his Warriors squad face a true test of their improvement this season when they run out into Connacht’s Galway Sportground tomorrow night.
The paupers of Irish rugby’s last home game resulted in a historic first Heineken Cup victory, one which meant little to Connacht in terms of any qualification but scuppered Harlequins’ hopes of reaching the tournament quarter-finals. So it meant something all right.
Lineen is acutely aware of the fact that his one and only success in Ireland’s western province was five seasons ago, a 40-23 win in April 2007, while a 19-19 draw in March 2010 proved vital in helping the Warriors into the first league play-offs. Glasgow won on their first trip to Connacht in a Celtic League quarter-final in 2001/02, however, last season, Glasgow were given a 37-8 pasting in the Galway wind.
“The stats don’t lie,” he said, although the teams do seem to meet during international periods when top players are unavailable. “It’s a difficult place for us to go. Last season was a low point. This is a different team now, and that was less to do with Connacht, who are a tough team to beat over there, but it was all to do with our level of performance, which was poor.
“We know how tough it’s going to be and you look at their last result at home, a Heineken Cup win over Harlequins, and with a new stand and a crowd that gets behind them, we have to make sure we get our basics right because otherwise they control the territory and you’re stuffed.
“Connacht play a certain brand of rugby but they do move the ball around, and punish you if you back off them. They have always had a very tasty forward pack who like the confrontation; their lineout drives are very strong; their defence hits hard and they want you to run at them, but they also look to win the territory battle and to counter-attack. But we’re concentrating on us because parts of our game have been very strong this season.”
Connacht lost by just two points to Leinster in their last match at home in the RaboDirect PRO12, but remain third from bottom in the table with just three wins. That is only one fewer than Edinburgh, but five off Glasgow and the Warriors know that their bid to claim a top-four spot and reach the play-offs again hinges on their ability to claim points through the five games played without their Scotland players.
Duncan Weir is included in the 22 this weekend, after sitting on the Scotland bench for the first time at the weekend but failing to get on against Wales. He starts on the bench again tomorrow with Scotland’s first-choice fly-half Ruaridh Jackson continuing his recovery from a leg injury suffered in the World Cup and desperate to push himself back into the Test frame before the RBS Six Nations ends.
Lineen has developed much faith in the squad that heads across the Irish Sea, having watched them find their feet in the first two months of the season when the star players were in New Zealand, and is hopeful that the rise this season will not suffer the same breakdown in Galway.
“We’re down 16 players [including injuries],” he said, “but, at the same time, this group of players largely have got us to where we’re at with so many players away at the World Cup. As a coach, you learn as well and while we gave them the opportunity, they have stepped up and shown that they value the Warriors jersey and don’t want to let the jersey down.
“I’m confident with the players we’ve got, the way they’ve come on and the belief that they’ve got, but this will be real test of where we are, in terms of the mental toughness and going there with genuine belief. We’ll find out with the result.”
One player at the heart of that drive to impress Lineen and his fellow coaches has been hooker Pat MacArthur. Now 24, the Prestwick youngster has begun to get to grips with adding a couple of stones in weight to his body shape and still retain the dynamism and ball skills that marked him out as a player to watch with Ayr several years ago. He comes into the starting line-up for Dougie Hall after a fifth straight win, at home to the Scarlets.
He said: “I knew coming into this season with Fergus [Thomson] being injured and Dougie away to the World Cup that it was a big opportunity for me to put my hat into the ring, and then with Dougie coming back I’ve been able to keep my form going.
“Now we have four hookers all fit and competition is higher than it has ever been, so I have to take the opportunity this weekend, at a hard place to go, to keep my place in the team. I’ve always had confidence in myself but it has been about changing that to get the coaches confident in me, and then to assert myself in games.
“This [Galway] is the only place I haven’t been yet and it seems to have been like this all through the season for me – going into new challenges, against a big French team or Leinster in the big European games – and now I have another challenge to go to Connacht and assert myself down there.”
MacArthur last’s start for Glasgow was against Bath in the Heineken Cup but, since then, he has also come off the bench to play his part in the Scotland ‘A’ hammering of England Saxons.
“That was my first A cap, but the season has just kept progressing well and that’s the way I want to keep it going. The first A cap was big enough but then to beat England 35-0 was a good pat on the back as well. Now the aim is to push on with Glasgow to the league play-offs, starting in Connacht.”