GLASGOW will have Chris Cusiter back as captain as they set about ending Leinster’s record run of RaboDirect Pro12 form at Scotstoun tonight.
The Scotland scrum-half makes a welcome return to the starting line-up after missing almost the entire 2012-13 season with injury, and the other four changes to the side that edged Ulster at Ravenhill last week see returns for Alex Dunbar, Jon Welsh, Chris Fusaro and Richie Vernon, with Sean Lamont moving from centre to wing.
The game has come too soon for Leinster’s new Wallaby signing Lote Tuqiri and star man Brian O’Driscoll, but internationalists Gordon D’Arcy and Isaac Boss start and British and Irish Lions Rob Kearney and Cian Healy join Ireland caps Eoin Reddan and Devin Toner in a strong group of replacements.
Still, with no Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Leo Cullen, Sean Cronin, Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden, O’Driscoll or Springbok Zane Kirchner, this is not yet a full-strength Leinster side. And, just as beating Cardiff at home in a rain-soaked opener and Ulster in Ravenhill last week, when they were missing a host of key players, were vital steps in the campaign to turn the Warriors from challengers into league winners, so is this.
Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend acknowledged that beating the reigning Pro12 champions would be a major achievement, but, in striving to maintain the focus on the desire to win every week, pointed to the fact that winning this one would bring no more points than beating any other team. “It would be a massive achievement [to win] because they have been the best team in Europe for the past three or four years,” said Townsend.
“They have lost once in their last 20 league games, which is incredible, and we’ve played three times against them in that period and had close games against them but lost all three. So we know that we’re up against a very good team, a squad of players that have been very consistent, and who play a really effective and successful style.
“I don’t think they lost a game away from home last season in the league so they are able to play as well away as they can at home, so it would be a great achievement if we did win.
“But every game is key for us. The game we play the following weekend against Zebre will be just as important. We know that, if we were to lose a game or a couple of games, other teams out there will be winning. There are 22 games in a season and we have to win as many as we can. We look at every game as a new training camp with a gameplan designed to beat a new opponent, whoever that is.
“This is a team that we respect so much and one we’ve had really good games against, and we know how important a win would be for us as a club. No Scottish team had won in Ulster for four years so last week was a great win, but we focus on performance as well and we know we didn’t play well in that game.
“We started well and we finished well, and all credit to the players who looked fit and kept their belief and defensive effort through more than 200 tackles. Not conceding a try away from home was fantastic. But we know that we can’t get away with that all the time and we need to get more of the ball and make better use of the ball.”
In his career, Townsend has developed a shrewd grasp of what it takes to compete with the best and, at the heart of that, is a consistency that comes from maintaining a high level of focus and performance across the season.
He knows that Leinster are not as strong now as they will become later in the season but is also aware that they have spent big and built a squad to garner wins when their leading lights are missing, hence their enviable array of recent silverware. Townsend picked out Ian Madigan as a danger, the Ireland stand-off starting this game at full-back, and expects to see him threaten at first receiver on occasions, switching with Jimmy Gopperth, the Junior All Blacks stand-off who has been revelling in a more effective game style than he experienced at Newcastle. Big winger Darragh Fanning has also been something of a find for Leinster this season.
For their part, Leinster flanker Kevin McLaughlin admitted to a new respect of Glasgow. “It was definitely one of the tougher games we played last season,” he said. “They’re really good with the ball in hand, they love to offload, they’ve really fast wingers, a strong back row and they’ve recruited a couple of good guys as well so it’s not going to be any easier this weekend.
“They’ve come close in the last couple of years and they’re backing themselves. They probably felt they could have beaten us in the RDS twice towards the end of last season, and are going to be rating their chances of getting into a semi and maybe beyond it this year, so we know we’re going to be up against it.”
The Warriors suffered disappointing news yesterday with confirmation that tighthead prop Mike Cusack, who helped to stabilise the pack in 2011-12, will undergo a second operation to fix a shoulder problem and be out of action until the new year, but skipper Al Kellock is now expected to be back from an ankle injury within the next few weeks. That, at least, will please supporters who have ensured another 5,000-plus full house at Scotstoun tonight.
“There is certainly a buzz,” added Townsend. “There is a really good connection between the players and the supporters here, and its credit to our players but also our supporters that they are really behind the club and the city. And that gives us a real boost.”