After their heroics of the last two weekends against Scarlets and Ospreys, Glasgow will play Benetton Treviso tonight at Scotstoun Stadium with a much-changed side, although head coach Gregor Townsend is adamant that he is not taking the Italians lightly, not least because they are fresh from beating Edinburgh.
Indeed, he could point to the arrival in the starting XV of Geoff Cross, the tighthead prop on loan from Edinburgh, who was one of Scotland’s few successes in the Six Nations and who replaces the injured Jon Welsh, and the return of club captain Al Kellock and Tim Swinson at second row, to argue that the Warriors’ forwards are actually stronger on paper.
There’s also a return to the bench, at least, for utility back Peter Horne after more than nine months out following cruciate ligament damage sustained on Scotland’s tour to South Africa. Sean Maitland is in for last week’s tryscorer Tommy Seymour on the right wing, Seymour’s shoulder injury still keeping him out.
Henry Pyrgos and Ruaridh Jackson replace the rested Chris Cusiter and Duncan Weir respectively, while Mark Bennett comes in at centre for Alex Dunbar and renews a partnership from their Scotland under-20 days with Finn Russell. Peter Murchie keeps his place at full-back in the continued absence of the suspended Stuart Hogg, while, in the back row, Tyrone Holmes replaces Chris Fusaro at openside, Rob Harley continues at blindside and Ryan Wilson comes in for Josh Strauss at No 8.
Victory over Treviso would put Glasgow into the top four play-off placings and, with Munster and Ulster on Heineken Cup duty, there’s a real chance to lay down a marker for the run-in to the end of the season.
“We have a real desire to keep the momentum going,” said Townsend yesterday, “and to get a win now and push the other teams around us would be great.
“Every game is important now, but, playing at home with the knowledge that we would go above Ospreys, we want to improve on the performance of the week before – and there were a lot areas from last week that we need to improve on – but if we play with the same effort that we showed against Scarlets and Ospreys we will be in a good position.
“We have a big opportunity, but, if we were to lose, we would put ourselves under pressure. This will be a really tough game, as we’ve seen Treviso playing with much more confidence in the last two weeks because their future is guaranteed for next season and their Italian internationals are back. To push Munster very close at Thomond Park two weeks ago shows they are a very good side and, last week, they beat Edinburgh at home, so are playing with confidence.”
Townsend said the Warriors’ front five will need to combat the Italians’ known strength in that area, and he also highlighted Treviso coach Marius Goosen’s selection of two big centres, Alberto Sgarbi and Christian Loamanu, as indicating their intention to run hard and direct.
“We have got to defend well,” said Townsend. “The win is the important thing and it would be great to have big numbers behind us tomorrow night.”
That’s a reference to the fact that the match is not being televised, and plenty tickets remain, though some of the briefs will no doubt be heading the way of Bennett’s family now that he has been selected to start.
Travelling halfway round the world might seem an unusual way to prepare for a big game, but Bennett was more than happy to play for Scotland Sevens when they won the Bowl in Hong Kong last weekend.
Bennett appreciated the opportunity to play for Scotland in a venue that was somewhat hotter than Scotstoun Stadium. Having done so, he made it clear that further sevens honours would be welcome, especially if he can line up in dark blue during the Commonwealth Games Sevens tournament at Ibrox this summer.
He said: “It was very warm and humid, and it’s a bit different coming back to Glasgow. It was outstanding, a great experience and what a place to play.
“It’s a lot different to 15s, the fitness was ridiculous, but it’s something I enjoyed, and if the Commonwealth Games was there I wouldn’t say no. There’s not many people can say they played in their home Commonwealth Games so if that opportunity came up I would grab it with both hands.”
It’s Warriors’ business first and foremost for Bennett, and if the 21-year-old is to announce his suitability for a full cap, say on the forthcoming summer tour, tonight might be a good time to do it.