IN HIS first season as a head coach, there is an irony that Gregor Townsend’s first challenge in the Heineken Cup is at the club where he first made his name as a professional player.
Townsend left his home town of Galashiels in 1994 to take up a job with RBS and play for Northampton, and walked into a whole new world of professional rugby in amateur times. Nearly two decades on and he returns to Franklins Gardens on Sunday as a fledging head coach with a Scottish game finally grasping what professionalism means, and what it takes, in terms of finance, squad depth and facilities, to compete.
Glasgow have never claimed a win on English soil in the competition, and on the one occasion the club qualified for the knockout stages in Europe, the joy quickly turned sour in a 90-19 loss at Leicester’s Welford Road in quarter-final play-offs.
But that was 15 years ago, and the Magners League/RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup have lifted Celtic rugby, so much so that the quality of rugby often surpasses what we see south of the border, and Townsend was full of optimism when he announced the team to face the Aviva Premiership leaders.
Stuart Hogg will make his first start of the season after overcoming an ankle injury and impressing off the bench in last week’s fourth league win of the season, away to Cardiff. Ryan Grant brings his new Test experience to an almighty front-row battle, and Tim Swinson, the former Newcastle lock who has experience of winning at Franklins Gardens, starts, with Tom Ryder one of six forwards on the bench this week, primed for a second-half role.
That bench split, six forwards and two backs, underlines where the Saints’ main strength lies and where Glasgow will have to uncover a new blend of steel, power and accuracy to give themselves a chance of claiming a first Heineken win in England.
Looking back on how the game has moved on, particularly in Scotland, since Townsend first pulled on the Northampton colours, the coach insisted that the gap, at least on the field, had now closed. “You see through Heineken Cup performances in the last couple of seasons, English teams against Scottish teams have been very competitive games,” he said.
“In the Rabo, the French and English league, all the top clubs are at a similar level.
“When I went down there the game was still amateur but the English clubs were prepared for professional rugby and were acting as if they were professional. Ian McGeechan was already a full-time director of rugby and the facilities and the crowds were just like they are now.
“In the last two or three years Edinburgh and Glasgow have been very competitive against any team, so there’s not a gap.
“We are playing one of the top teams in Europe so it’s almost Test level, but we’ve won twice away from home this season. We know that crowd numbers will be bigger than we had at Cardiff and the Ospreys, there will be a better atmosphere, and while they have now lost one game, we are going to be playing a team on form, but this group of players are more than capable of matching that.”
The fact that Northampton lost their first match of the season, going down 39-17 away to London Irish on Saturday, was arguably not what Glasgow wanted. Coach Jim Mallinder tinkered with his line-up, but was still furious with his side’s showing, even though they remain two points clear at the top of the Premiership heading into Europe. He spoke this week of the team not performing, “talking a good game but not playing one”, and that it served as a “harsh lesson”.
“We need to have a good look at ourselves,” Mallinder said, and when asked what had to change in this week’s performance, he replied: “Everything.”
Mallinder will name his squad today, but comparison between the likely starting XVs underlines the hosts’ favourites status. Northampton have been building a Test-quality squad with investment in players of more than £5 million a year for the past decade, a figure the SRU have only this year begun to match.
Glasgow have been developing a hard edge over the past three seasons, but have a new coaching team and are currently missing a core of internationalists to injury, namely Chris Cusiter, Rob Harley, Rory Lamont, Graeme Morrison, Jon Welsh, Moray Low, Duncan Weir and DTH van der Merwe. So this weekend John Barclay, Al Kellock and Sean Lamont represent the proven Test experience.
Townsend’s excitement stems from such talents as Hogg, Peter Murchie, Alex Dunbar, Ruaridh Jackson, Henry Pyrgos, Ryan Grant, Mike Cusack, Ryan Wilson and Chris Fusaro, talents still developing into mature and consistent professionals.
Two years ago, Glasgow with the Evans brothers, Thom and Max, pulled off their best result in Europe, winning in Toulouse, and five years ago came close to dousing Saracens.
The last time they travelled to Northampton was in October 2001, when Andy Nicol’s Glasgow – a team also featuring Glenn Metcalfe, James McLaren, Andy Henderson, Tommy Hayes, David Hilton, Gordon Bulloch, Jason White and Jon Petrie – went down 30-9, with Scotland skipper Budge Pountney one of four Northampton try-scorers. The return remains a great Glasgow memory, resulting in a 31-27 win at Hughenden.
Townsend is not heading south hoping for a bonus point, nor seeking to play on the old Scots underdog tag, but with a plan to rattle the Saints pack, starve the hosts of ball and pick off scoring chances he is confident his players will create. “We go into every game with the goal of winning,” he said. “The underdog mentality does sometimes provide motivation to play your best game, but sometimes you can go in expecting that you are the inferior team and you play like the inferior team.
“We’ve created belief in what we’re doing, the two away wins are great in the subconscious, and we’re going down there to win the game. The players believe that they can do the job down there.
“We know how tough it’s going to be, but it has been great to see the work the players are putting in paying dividends, especially the character they’ve shown away from home. This is a new focus and the Heineken Cup will lift everyone, knowing that we’re going to a place like Franklins Gardens. It’s a huge challenge and we know how big this game is for the club.”
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