JUST as Ireland will present an acid test on Sunday of where Scott Johnson’s Scotland team are in their development, so the arrival of RaboDirect PRO12 leaders Ulster in the west of Scotland tonight offers a gilt-edged opportunity for Glasgow to prove that they are indeed a new force.
Head coach Gregor Townsend and defence specialist Matt Taylor have worked with forwards guru Shade Munro to alter the Warriors’ approach and, having claimed a record six straight wins earlier in the season, go into tonight’s game once again on the back of five consecutive league wins.
In November that early run came to grief in a ragged performance against a shadow Leinster side at Scotstoun but, after watching his side demolish the Newport Gwent Dragons in a record 60-3 win last week, Townsend is confident that his team have learned from that experience.
Still, he is not afraid to shuffle his team and tonight he hands the stand-off reins to Peter Horne, a promising talent with the ability to play in the 10, 12 or 13 shirts.
Townsend said: “Peter brings another dimension to our play and will lead what is an exciting back division and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.
“We played some very good rugby last week and scored some excellent tries but I believe there is more to come from this group of players. We are now entering the business end of the season, where each match has ramifications on the play-off positions. We will be playing six out of the top seven sides in the next two months and we’ll have to be at our best to succeed.”
It was always going to take time for Townsend and Taylor, and their new ideas on attack and defence, to bed into the Glasgow set-up but there are clear signs of an understanding developing. Whereas the team claimed some narrow wins early on through terrific spirit, the Warriors have left sides trailing recently, scoring 181 points and 24 tries in the last five games, for the loss of just 61 and six tries.
Townsend was quick to point out that this was against four of the bottom five clubs in the league – Edinburgh, Treviso, Zebre and Dragons – and that the challenge stiffens now with Ulster followed by Cardiff, Leinster and Munster in the race for the play-off spots.
Glasgow opened the season with a narrow 18-10 loss to Ulster at Ravenhill, and lost home and away to the Belfast men in the Heineken Cup but they arrive at Scotstoun this time with 11 changes to the side that beat Zebre 26-3 at home last week and their strength in depth no longer significantly greater than Glasgow’s.
Winger Neil Walsh and back row Conor Joyce start for the first time in a team captained by All Black prop John Afoa, with Nigel Brady and Callum Black stepping up beside him. Ireland lock Dan Tuohy is back, alongside former Dundee player Neil McComb, in place of regular skipper Johann Muller and Lewis Stevenson with Robbie Diack, the only forward retained from the Zebre fixture, joined by Joyce and Ali Birch.
There is a core of experience with Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half, Paddy Wallace at stand-off and Andrew Trimble moving to outside centre, to guide inexperienced quartet Stuart Olding (inside centre), Walsh (left wing), Michael Allen (right wing) and Ricky Andrew (full-back).
Glasgow have a dangerous back line, but they need the ball and the Warriors have had to dig deep up front with six props unavailable. Jon Welsh is back in the Scotland squad with Moray Low and Ryan Grant, and hooker Dougie Hall, and Gordon Reid (concussion), Mike Cusack (shoulder) and George Hunter (foot) are injured. So Tongan prop Ofa Fainga’anuku makes his second start alongside Ed Kalman – who celebrated the birth of a son, Joseph, this week – and Stirling County’s Garry Mountford joins Luke Pettie from Gala and Heriot’s hooker Fraser Brown on the bench.
Ulster are currently seven points clear of Glasgow at the top of the league and Leinster, who are two points behind the Warriors, are at home to the fourth-placed Scarlets tomorrow, so Ulster could put a bit of daylight between themselves and the chasers with victory.
Townsend added: “It’s not the first time this season that we’ve faced some challenges around our front-row options but you just have to deal with it and work out the best solution in order to put the team in a winning position.
“There’s no doubt that it’s a big challenge as Ulster are very strong in the set-piece and our forward pack understand the test that awaits them. Their record this season is something to be admired. The fact that they’ve only lost one away game the whole of this season is a great achievement.
“But we quickly put aside the result from last week and focused on what we have to do at Scotstoun to win this game. This is the start of a very tough run of matches and we need to be at our best to maintain the chase for a home play-off.”