THERE is a sense that the Gregor Townsend mind was created for the kind of challenges that his Glasgow side face in the south of France this weekend.
The former Scotland stand-off travelled the world in his playing career, leaving Gala to join Ian McGeechan’s professional launch at Northampton, having already enjoyed summers in Australian rugby, before playing for Brive, Castres and Montpellier in France, a spell in Super Rugby with the Sharks and back at his native Borders. He has got inside the psyche of many rugby cultures and, what is more, felt at home in them.
When he launched his club coaching career with the Warriors in 2012, few gave his side any chance of making an impression. A new head coach, still cutting his teeth, a new assistant with innovative defensive ideas in Matt Taylor, and the guiding hand of Shade Munro was viewed as a combo that might take a bit of time to settle in with each other, never mind to gel a squad of veterans, young kids and relatively unknown foreigners.
They surprised most by overcoming a tough first couple of months to come within a forward pass of reaching the PRO12 final for the first time, and finished the season with plenty to reflect on positively. Apart from one block of six games.
The Heineken Cup was where the fragility of a new coaching regime and squad was exposed, to an extent. They lost their first five games before finishing with a high point of victory over Northampton at Scotstoun.
A closer look at those games reveal the fine lines of competition at this level. The team had Northampton around the throat in their Franklins Gardens home, leading 15-0 heading towards half-time, but three quick tries either side of the interval rocked Glasgow’s confidence and they slid to a 24-15 defeat. Ulster took advantage of the Warriors’ chastened state the following week to edge a tight encounter 19-8 at Scotstoun.
Glasgow regrouped in Dec-ember, beginning to find their rhythm in the league, but were stymied by a solid, tight, forward-orientated Castres side, losing 9-6 at home and, agonisingly, went down 10-8 in France.
The 23-6 defeat away to Ulster was the only game where Glasgow were not at the races, and they atoned for that slip with the gutsy 27-20 win against Northampton in the final pool match.
But, in truth, though the foundations built by Sean Lineen, Gary Mercer, Munro and skipper Al Kellock were sure, they had not cultivated the belief and confidence in the new set-up at that stage, to turn close-run things into wins, and so could have no complaints.
Have they now? Townsend believes they are further ahead mentally and in skill development than a year ago but agrees that the Heineken Cup is the ultimate club test. And it does not come bigger than Jonny Wilkinson’s Rugby Club Toulonnais, the cup holders and the most expensive side in world rugby – conservative estimates place their true salary costs at around £20 million, to Glasgow’s £4.3m – in the intense furnace of the 15,000-capacity Stade Felix Mayol.
And now there is a new expectation on the Warriors: leaders of the RaboDirect PRO12 versus second in the French Top 14. Pressure? Townsend smiles.
“Pressure to me is what comes from the opposition, their line-speed and how quickly they get on ball, not the outside influences. I don’t know what it will mean to the media [Glasgow being PRO12 leaders], and I don’t know what it will mean to the French media or Toulon players. I’m sure they will prepare well for us. It’s just a great occasion to be involved in.
“We work well together as a group on a daily basis, and we have a focus on what we need to do at that the weekend and knowing that we have to perform to beat these teams.
“We are going to have to play close to our best to have a chance of winning this game. I watched Clermont and Toulon before our game [on Saturday], and they are two of the best sides in Europe. But we can’t wait.”
He has a few areas to work on before flying to France on Friday. The team has shown in spells how good it can be, notably against Leinster and in the first half at Scarlets on Saturday, but while there is a new steely consistency to their defence the attack has regularly dropped off the pace and intensity necessary at the top level.
Defence will give the Warriors hope in Toulon, but it was the quality and ambition of their attack that secured the great result in Toulouse in 2009.
The Warriors scrum is more solid on opposition ball than its own under the new scrum laws, where the hooker hooks, and that is a concern going up against one of the most formidable packs in the game, while the lineout is good but not 100 per cent yet. Much of that could be put down to the weekly switch in personnel. Townsend has used 36 players so far and won all five PRO12 games, which will be great for squad harmony and keeping players from becoming jaded, but now it gets serious and we can see another handful of changes coming.
Townsend did not disagree. He insisted that Toulon had not been mentioned to the players this season until after Saturday’s game, but take it as read that he has been thinking about them probably since the draw was made months ago. And whatever line-up is settled on he needs it to produce their top form.
“We need to be at our best, but it’s hard to say what playing our best is,” he offered. “We played our best last season in the [PRO12] semi-final and we lost that. We’re playing well enough right now to win games. The Leinster game [at home] produced some of the best performances I’ve seen from our forwards especially.
“But I’ve watched a lot of rugby from around the world, and a lot of teams are rusty at this point. We’ve got six months of a season still to play. I’ve watched a lot of French rugby and it isn’t very fluent yet, with defences on top, and we’re all trying to work out the scrums.
“I thought some of our play in the first half [against the Scarlets], the ambition, linking and awareness of where the space was to score two tries was good. We needed to tighten up some of the off-loads in the second half. But we couldn’t have asked for more than five wins from five to go into European break.
“Now it’s Europe and Toulon and it will be as difficult as any week [to pick the team], but we will be working out what the best team is for us to win.”
Townsend is still learning his trade, but his team have conceded only two tries in five games – both, strangely, away to the poorest side, Zebre – so the Taylor-inspired defence is working. What Edinburgh would give to know what their new Omar Mouneimne-styled system might look like in a year’s time.
The tries are not yet flowing and the pack is striving to uncover consistency in the set-piece, but Townsend, Taylor and Munro have ideas on where they can test Toulon. Newcastle and Biarritz were the only sides to beat Toulon as France’s nouveau riche reached the Challenge Cup final two years ago, and Montpellier, in Montpellier, were the only team to claim their scalp in last season’s successful Heineken Cup campaign.
Johnnie Beattie’s team shipped 37 points in Toulon, Cardiff 45 and Sale 60, which shows what can happen when the world stars hit their straps. Toulon have won their last 16 European games at home and had a run of Stade Mayol victories in the Top 14 ended at 18 in January by Racing Metro, but since then have rattled up ten wins and one draw.
Beating them at Scotstoun, while pinning qualification hopes on the games with Exeter and Cardiff, will be a more realistic proposition, but as a Scot who revelled in big occasions on several continents, yet faced heralded opponents with the same demeanour as he took on supposed ‘lower-league’ opposition, Townsend remains unfazed by the opening assignment.
“We have spent a lot of time looking at both of our first European opponents [Toulon and Exeter] and we’ll have a game-plan that we believe could lead to success,” he said.