ALTHOUGH he stressed that it was conditional on winning the games that matter and showing consistency, Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend believes his squad has the armoury to make history by winning the RaboDirect Pro12.
Speaking ahead of tonight’s opening league match against Cardiff Blues at Scotstoun, Townsend said: “It will be tough but I believe in this squad and I believe they are capable of something special.
“We came very close last season. We played the eventual winners [Leinster, in the play-off semi finals] away from home and really pushed them to the wire. If you look at the stats from that day we had the edge over Leinster in defence, attack and in the set piece.
“We have the players and the style to take on the best teams in the league. It’s about winning those big games, whether against teams pushing for the top four or in the semi-finals, and it’s also about consistency right throughout the year.”
Townsend’s optimism following a strong surge in the second half of last season is obviously shared by the Glasgow club’s supporters. Over 2,500 season tickets – a record for a Scottish pro team and 1,000 up on last year – have already been sold, while only 500 tickets remain for tonight’s curtain raiser, which almost guarantees a full house of 4,500.
This public vote of confidence is despite both sides being without their British and Irish Lions, a factor which is likely to inconvenience the visitors more. Nevertheless, as Glasgow attempt to make their first winning start since 2010, Townsend expects the Welsh side to be tough opponents.
“Cardiff have beaten two Premiership teams in pre-season and, when they played us in February they attacked really well,” the former Scotland stand-off pointed out. “There is a bit of a buzz down there with their new artificial pitch at the Arms Park, which looks fantastic.
“Although their Lions are not playing if you have the Lions man-of-the-series [Leigh Halfpenny] and the captain [Sam Warburton] at your club there’s going to be a good feeling. We’re expecting a very tough game.”
Glasgow captain Al Kellock returns to the side after sitting out the 29-26 win at Exeter Chiefs last Saturday. He will partner Tim Swinson in the second row with Scotland under-19 captain Jonny Gray dropping down to the bench.
As usual there is considerable jostling for places in the front row, but the notable inclusion is that of recent signing Jerry Yanuyanutawa alongside Pat MacArthur and Ed Kalman. It will be the prop’s first start for Glasgow and his first start as a married man.
“Jerry had a great impact when he came on as a replacement [against Exeter] last week,” Townsend pointed out. “He has merited his selection on how he well he played then – defensively he put in a number of hits, he scrummed really well and he’s dynamic in the loose.
“He was here for three weeks and then went back to Fiji to get married. We were delighted when he came back that he’d kept up his fitness work. His wife will come over in a few weeks.
“He has an Aussie accent because he was brought up there. He’s a lovely bloke and we’ve been fortunate with our signings this year and last – they’re not just great rugby players, but the nicest people you could meet.”
Two of these Townsend was referring to, Niko Matawalu and Josh Strauss, are on the injured list, although the latter is close to recovering from his head knock and is expected to turn out for Aberdeen Grammar at Gala tomorrow.
“We were hoping Josh would be available for both our pre-season games,” reported Townsend. “He’d recovered from a head knock to be captain last week but the day before the game took contact again and felt his head wasn’t right. It’s important that he gets match fitness because he’s not played since the end of last season.”
Stand-off Ruaridh Jackson is also edging back towards the first team but will first have to oust Scott Wight, who keeps his place at No 10 against Cardiff. There is only one change to the back line which started against Exeter, with Mark Bennett coming in to partner Alex Dunbar at centre. Sean Lamont moves out to right wing.
“It’s a very strong side,” said Townsend, who approves of the new scrum laws in principle and doesn’t think they will have an adverse effect on his side. “The players who have been selected have shown during pre-season that they are on form.
“There are certain positions where we have three players competing for a jersey and others four, so the players all know they have to perform. I feel we are in a stronger position than we were 12 months ago.”
Former Wales captain Matthew Rees will make his competitive debut for Cardiff.