The only time that Scottish rugby has featured in the last eight of the world’s leading club competition was in 2003-4, when Edinburgh reached the quarter-finals. Glasgow qualified for the quarter-final play-offs in 1997-98, only to be humiliated by the concession of 90 points at Leicester, but since then the closest they have come to emulating Edinburgh’s feat was in 2007-8.
Ed Kalman is one of a clutch of talented Scottish players most supporters know little of, simply because he has struggled to force his way into the starting line-up at Glasgow since switching west from the defunct Borders in 2007. An intelligent lad, with degrees in business and physics – which included rocket science and has ensured many a joke or two – he found it near impossible to develop his game with staccato appearances, until this season’s World Cup took Moray Low to New Zealand.
Now, with injuries to Mike Cusack and Low opening the door to at least two consecutive games, and coaches Sean Lineen and Shade Munro raving about his improvement with new motivation, he is keen to make up for lost time.
“I have improved,” he said, “but I think the whole squad has benefited from a long pre-season where we all got in pretty good physical condition. Then when the World Cup players were away there was an opportunity to play on a regular basis and build a bit of form.
“It’s human nature that sometimes you get a little disillusioned or down-hearted, but that’s one of the great things about the period we’ve just come through where lots of people got an opportunity to play, and that’s what we all really want. I’m not the only one who has seized that opportunity; you only have to look at the young guys coming through.”
Rob Harley, Ryan Wilson, Ryan Grant and Stuart Hogg are other examples of players who have grasped their chance during the World Cup window, which points to a real benefit to the team of having three months without the internationalists. Is that perhaps why Scotland’s team perform more strongly in World Cup seasons? “I guess that shows the potential depth in Scottish rugby that people don’t quite give us credit for,” said Kalman. “We can excel during World Cup years where maybe other teams don’t have the strength in depth to do so.
“It was important to get a good pre-season in and get really fit and hit the ground running, because I knew it was going to be an opportunity for me. And Mike [Cusack] coming in and Moray coming back from the World Cup has ultimately made me a better player. It had to because if it didn’t I wouldn’t be around much longer.”
At 6ft 2in, 19 stones and just turned 29 – a prop’s prime – Kalman has much to give Glasgow and the Scottish game going forward with clear strength and ball-playing ability key assets.
He insisted that he was not thinking beyond tomorrow, advisedly as he faces a real examination with the potential all-Ireland front row in Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross. But if he gets his game right, and causes the Irish scrum problems, real hope will emerge among the 6,000-plus supporters in Glasgow’s West End.
The Warriors are six points behind the Irish visitors, which, with them hosting Montpellier in Dublin next weekend, still leaves Leinster favourites to top the pool. However, if Glasgow win tomorrow and follow up with victory against struggling Bath next weekend they would have a chance of claiming one of the best two runners-up spots.
If not, two wins should at least guarantee a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals and European excitement at the tail end of the season. Glasgow have made ten changes to the side that lost narrowly at the Scarlets, including restoring Stuart Hogg to outside centre, Chris Cusiter and Duncan Weir to half-back and Al Kellock and Richie Gray to the second row, starting Rory Lamont for the first time at full-back and sending out what Lineen terms “the three best loose forwards” together, in Rob Harley, Chris Fusaro and John Barclay.
Glasgow must dominate in the set-piece to have a realistic chance of winning, but after being badly beaten in Dublin Glasgow’s back row performance will need to be significantly better in any case, and Barclay has a key role to play in guiding the younger talents. Glasgow have won six of their last seven Heineken Cup matches at Firhill – the sole loss coming against Toulouse last season – and among those beaten here are strong sides in Wasps, Gloucester, Biarritz and Northampton. Lineen knows the intensity in this one will be higher than any of those and the demands greater in each Warriors player, but with a growing strength in depth he is confident this could be the time the players pull it off.
“This is a huge game for the club,” the coach added. “We have two wins and a draw and should have won in Montpellier, but didn’t, so we now have to go out in front of a bumper crowd, which is fantastic, and deliver.
“The players know that and we’re building up nicely for 12.45. You have to be excited in the Heineken Cup and a little bit fearful as well because we know Leinster are coming across hell-bent on winning, knowing if they can that’s the group done. There’s no bigger test and this is what you want.”