GLASGOW head coach Gregor Townsend has worked hard to develop a strong spirit in his squad while pushing for the RaboDirect Pro12 title, but at the heart of that has been a delicate balancing act of rotating players.
Chris Cusiter is one who returns tonight for the first versus second clash with Munster at Scotstoun and Townsend accepted that it had not been easy dropping the Scotland and British and Irish Lions scrum-half out of the 23 altogether for the Heineken Cup match in Toulon, and leaving him on the bench last week in the win over Exeter, when Henry Pyrgos was left out.
“It’s great for us this week because he will bring us experience, competitiveness and skill,” said Townsend.
“He has played very well in his games for us, one of them being against Leinster. He captained the team that night and played really well, so we’re expecting a similar performance.
“I would prefer to have the whole squad to pick from, but to have players who have played at the highest level really motivated for these games is great. We have great competition in a number of positions, one of them being scrum-half, and in the last three games we’ve had three different nines [Cusiter, Pyrgos and Niko Matawalu].
“It’s great for me as a coach that we have that quality. They all want to play, as I would if I was a player, but they also understand that they are up against very good players. My aim – and hopefully theirs – is to make sure that brings out the best from them. They all have different strengths, but they are all good players with very good basic skills.”
Townsend was known to have a great rugby mind, and cutting edge ideas as a coach, but it was the man-management aspect that many feared he might find tough, stepping straight into a club head coach role after just three seasons as an assistant in the very different environment of a national squad. He appears to be handling it well, if Cusiter’s take is anything to go by.
“What it says is that we have three options at scrum-half and I don’t think there is a first choice starter as yet,” he said. “It is a tough job for Gregor to manage because everyone of the three of us brings something different, but we understand that he is trying to bring the best out of everyone.
“It’s tough. The other guys will say the same, but I always back myself to do a good job for the team, and I felt I played well against Leinster and the Scarlets and was on form and could do a good job for the team.
“That was why I was frustrated missing out [on the Heineken Cup]. But, this is our eighth game of the season and it will be my third start, and now I have a big opportunity.”
Sean Lamont is another experienced internationalist glad of a return to action tonight, having overcome a calf injury to be handed the No 12 jersey and an opportunity to push back into the thoughts of interim Scotland coach Scott Johnson for the Japan Test match, now just over two weeks away.
Sean Maitland, DTH van der Merwe and Tommy Seymour continue in the back three, while Duncan Weir replaces Ruaridh Jackson at stand-off. In the pack Ryan Grant, Pat MacArthur and Moray Low make up the front row, with Ed Kalman injured, Al Kellock is rested so Jonny Gray returns to partner Tim Swinson at lock and the back row remains unchanged after a fine performance against Exeter by Tyrone Holmes, Rob Harley and Josh Strauss.
Stuart Hogg now has his cast off, but is still looking at another month out of action with his fractured wrist, but Ryan Wilson is close to returning from his long-term shoulder injury and New second row Leone Nakawara has also returned to Glasgow after a spell dealing with issues back in his native Fiji.
While there he was asked to play for his local club and did so with Glasgow’s blessing, duly picking up Man of the Match awards in both games, but after being included in Fiji’s autumn training squad he swiftly dropped out again and will only be available to the Flying Fijians if they need emergency cover. He is likely to make his Warriors debut next month.
Tonight’s game is another key test of Glasgow’s ability to cope with the favouritesb tag, and maintain an unprecedented 100 per cent league record. Munster have made changes after a Heineken Cup win over Gloucester, calling up Andrew Conway, Ivan Dineen and Ronan O’Mahony from their A side and partnering JJ Hanrahan with new Lion Conor Murray.
James Cronin makes his third league start in a new front row with Mike Sherry and Stephen Archer, while CJ Stander joins Sean Dougall and Peter O’Mahony in the back row, as they try to take maximum points from this week and next week’s game with the Ospreys.
Munster coach Rob Penney said: “Glasgow are top of the table, semi-finalists who probably should have been in the final last year and they are the form team in the Rabo in at least the last nine months.
“It doesn’t get more difficult than playing them at their home ground. It’s as big as it gets in the Rabo at this time of the year.”
Munster team: J Murphy; A Conway, K Earls, I Dineen, R O’Mahony; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; J Cronin, M Sherry, S Archer, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony (capt), S Dougall, CJ Stander. Subs: D Varley, D Kilcoyne, BJ Botha, B Holland, J Coughlan, C Sheridan, J Downey, C Laulala.
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE