You have to feel for Glasgow. There they were last year, knocking their pan in every weekend to grind their way into the RaboDirect play-offs. Meanwhile, their inter-city rivals from the east grabbed all the headlines with a Heineken Cup run which was three parts excellence to one part sheer good luck. Edinburgh ended up in the semi-finals, whilst barely bothering to break sweat in the day job.
After six rounds of this season’s Pro12 league, the Warriors are already sitting six places above Edinburgh. Glasgow, under new coach Gregor Townsend, face a tough Heineken Cup opener against the English league leaders in Northampton this afternoon but surely being comprehensively outshone in Europe by their rivals must have grated just a little?
“Looking from afar obviously it was great what Edinburgh did last season,” says scrum-half Henry Pyrgos, who obviously doesn’t bear a grudge. “There was a lot of buzz going on about what they did in the Heineken Cup and they played some great rugby. Obviously, we focused on the league and that went really well but the Heineken is a massive tournament with great teams and great players.
“We target it every year. It’s a massive goal for us and we need to get out the blocks really well. It’s such a tough competition you’ve pretty much got to win every game to get through the group. We’re definitely targeting a win on Sunday. We know it’s going to be tough but we’re going down there to win.”
These are brave words from young Pyrgos who, given the shoulder injury suffered by Glasgow’s first-choice scrum-half Chris Cusiter against the Ospreys, has a fighting chance of being named in the Scotland squad for the autumn Tests. Despite being the only Scottish nine currently plying his trade in a top flight league, Pyrgos will need to add some authority to his more obvious attributes if he is to leapfrog either Mike Blair (Brive) or Rory Lawson (Falcons) into the match day squad when the Blacks and Boks come calling at Murrayfield next month.
Engish-born Pyrgos qualifies for Scotland through his Dundonian mother – “my grandparents hammered it into me that I was Scottish” – and he grew up playing more hockey and cricket than rugby. He eventually made his mark with Loughborough University before turning out for the same successful Scotland under-20 side as Richie Gray.
While most rugby players these days could double up as night club bouncers, Pyrgos would have trouble keeping control at a Justin Bieber concert. He is even slighter in the flesh than he looks on the field and he readily concedes that pumping iron is not his strong suit. However, he has one priceless asset; he puts pace on a game. He plays at tempo, moves the ball away from the contact area quickly, keeps the defence honest with the occasional break and covers a huge amount of ground in defence. In other words he is a young version of Mike Blair, which bodes well for the future with the original model now on the wrong side of 30.
“Gregor’s come in and that [pace] is a big focus for us,” says Pyrgos, known to his team-mates simply as “H”. “We like to think that we are quite a fit side. I think we are developing every game and a big focus for me is to get to the breakdown and to move the point of attack and get the ball to our tens in space. Quick ball, it’s what every team tries to get. Create quick ball and get defences going backwards.”
The only thing that is missing from Pyrgos’ resumé is a little experience to help his decision-making and, at 23, that is sure to come, especially since Lady Luck is currently arm wrestling Cusiter into submission.
Glasgow go into today’s game at Franklin’s Gardens in good spirits after four straight league wins, even if the Welsh teams are hardly the international yardstick of excellence these days. Injuries have conspired to hamper Glasgow and Cusiter is not the only player who will be watching today’s game on TV. Glasgow have two tightheads props sidelined, Ed Kalman and Moray Low, or three if you count Jon Welsh who is being encouraged to shuffle across the face of the front row.
More seriously for Townsend is the loss of stand-off Duncan Weir who hit his knee against a padded post in a freak accident and ended up in agony. It is a big opportunity for Ruaridh Jackson to bury a difficult start to the season but there is little doubt who would have been starting at ten if Weir has been fit.
Northampton have no such worries. They will field a strong XV, with the Samoan Pisi brothers, Ken and George, teaming up in the back line and a frightening front row of Soane Tonga’uiha, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati that is straight out of the Brothers Grimm. It will be a test of the Warriors’ resolve as much as anything else but that may be no bad thing.
“We pride ourselves on going out every week and putting in a massive performance,” explains Pyrgos. “The work ethic at Glasgow is huge. It’s something that is hammered into us in pre-season as soon as you get here and then throughout the week, every day, our culture is part of that, whatever it takes. With our squad at the moment there’s a lot of competition for places and you have to be doing that [working hard] every game and training session just to get into the team. All the injuries give us a chance to show what a good squad of players we have.
“Northampton have a great pack of forwards and good backs as well so they can play either way. For the forwards it’s going to be a big battle up front. The contact area will be massive, we focus on that pretty much every game, even in the Rabo. If you can make it hard for other teams to win quick ball and mess up their attack and, likewise, create quick ball for yourself, be really accurate there, retain quick ball, that goes a long way to getting a team on the front foot and winning the game.”
If he has genuine aspirations to play for Scotland, Pyrgos will need to match his opposite number, England’s Lee Dickson, this afternoon. If Glasgow harbour genuine Heineken Cup ambitions then every one of his colleagues will need to do the same.