Rob Harley aiming to imbue Glasgow with a certain je ne sais quoi

He’s come a long way in a short time, now the thoughtful, French-speaking flanker is plotting Montpellier’s downfall

Such is the unforgiving nature of the Heineken Cup that Glasgow’s European adventure could be in the dustbin by close of business this afternoon; not that it seems likely. Montpellier may be last year’s French Top 14 finalists but they arrive at Firhill with a host of unknown players and patchy domestic form with five wins from 12 league outings.

There is no place in today’s squad for the classy Francois Trinh-Duc, criminally underused in the World Cup, and the Glasgow back row will give thanks that coach Fabien Galthie has rested both the giant Georgian wrecking ball Mamuka Gorgodze and, rapier to his bludgeon, the club captain Fulgence Ouedraogo.

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Indeed, there are only four survivors from the starting XV of their last European outing and, with a draw and a defeat from two Heineken Cup group games, it may be that Galthie has decided to concentrate his resources on extricating his team from the Top 14 hole they dug for themselves during the World Cup.

That is not to say that today’s task will be an easy one but if Glasgow have any pretensions of making a first ever Heineken quarter-final appearance they need to win this afternoon, and so they should. Sean Lineen’s side come into the tie with some decent league form behind them, unbeaten in six, and with the increasingly impressive Rob Harley filling the No.6 jersey.

With his shock of bright red hair the big breakaway may look the archetypal Scot but he is far removed from the identikit professional sportsman. Harley is a multifaceted character who speaks and reads imperfect French (it may come in handy today), bringing brains as well as brawn to bear in his chosen occupation. His coaches concede that after making a point to him the response may arrive several days later, only after Harley has chewed it over to his satisfaction.

He is obviously smarter than your average bear. Quizzed as to what he gets up to outside of rugby, it turns out that the flanker’s idea of unwinding is to proof read his new fiancée’s English literature dissertation. And if jumping the broomstick at 21 sounds a shade impetuous, he is not planning the actual ceremony until 2013; in true Harley fashion he has given this project proper consideration.

He has had little enough time to digest his meteoric rise through the ranks, a rise that says as much about the thin crust at the top of Scottish rugby’s pie as it does about Harley’s obvious talent and unwavering willingness to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty; something Glasgow will need today if they are to overcome what is sure to be a physical French side.

“We’ve looked at Montpellier in the build up,” says Harley, “and it’s pretty obvious that they are a big, physical side and they will definitely challenge us. We went to Leinster a couple of weeks ago [losing 38-13 in the second round of Heineken Cup matches] and we started slowly at the contact area. From what we’ve seen of Montpellier they are going to be the same sort of challenge [as Leinster] and we can’t afford to start slowly.”

No one is accusing Harley of a slow start since he shot to prominence last year with a string of combative performances for Glasgow which won him a toe-hold on the fringes of the international arena. At the middle of his first season as a full professional player he found himself in Andy Robinson’s Six Nations squad, although the nearest he got to the pitch was as a travelling substitute against England and France. A little later he appeared in Scotland’s extended World Cup squad before missing out on a trip to New Zealand at the final cut. Did the instant elevation come as a shock to the system?

“It was a surprise,” says Harley, “but that’s what I felt about pretty much the whole season. At the beginning my goal was to start a couple of games for Glasgow over the course of the whole season and as it turned out I got a chance to do more than that.

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“It was incredible going from playing for West of Scotland” – his brother James now turns out for the club side – “to playing Munster, Toulouse and Edinburgh in successive weeks. It was just an incredible experience to go through.”

In his first season Harley started 22 matches for Glasgow, more than any other forward, and came off the bench five times.

He is the quiet type who talks a little like he plays the game. He is hesitant with words, thrifty even, and likewise he doesn’t always look the most natural or fluid player on the pitch.

What he does offer is an imposing physique that is getting bigger by the year, an appetite for hard graft and the utter faith that the latter can compensate for any shortcomings in his God-given gifts. Moreover, he is still learning the game. If Harley occasionally looks like a second row who has been pressed into emergency service on the flank it’s only because that’s the truth of it.

Once he’d dropped footy at the age of 15 to concentrate on the oval ball – “I decided I liked the physicality of rugby better” – Harley spent his formative years in the boiler house. With neither Richie Gray or big Al Kellock willing to step to one side, Harley found a new role for himself on the blindside flank. He doesn’t seem to know where he will end up and he doesn’t appear to be losing much sleep over the issue.

“For me, the ideal is to be better at both aspects of the game. I think I can get myself more explosive as a six and I can get bigger and stronger to play lock. I don’t really see them as divergent skills sets.”

Doesn’t a flanker need to be quicker and more dynamic?

“I don’t think anyone’s ever complained that their second-row forwards are too quick,” is the well-judged response.

Harley is just one of a number of young players who are forcing the pace at Glasgow and generating a new sense of self-belief in the pro team. In what is only his second professional season the youngster has already made ten starts (again, more than any other forward) and he was even handed the captaincy when Kellock was leading Scotland’s World Cup campaign.

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He is a coach’s dream, eager, intelligent and talented; it seems a matter of when rather than if he will pull on that famous blue Scotland jersey – but with Kelly Brown as first choice he may have to be patient. In the meantime Harley has business with Montpellier and, whatever team they field, this new generation of Scots kowtows to no one.

“I believe we can win every game for Glasgow. I don’t think there is any team out there that will definitely beat us. We go into every game thinking that we should win.”

With his mastery of the French language and his individual take on life, might he be tempted to spend a season or two in the Top 14 when his current contract runs out in 2014?

“The idea of playing abroad is interesting but I’m from Glasgow and playing for the Warriors team that I grew up watching, that’s always going to be the first loyalty for me.”

It is the sort of response that any Glasgow player would be expected to offer but Harley is a little different from the norm; he may actually mean it.