Such is the affection for Vern Cotter after all he achieved during his time in charge of Scotland that the visit of his Montpellier side to Glasgow this evening has the convivial feel of a venerated guest making a most welcome homecoming.
This is serious business, though, and the red carpet will have to be kept tightly rolled up until after a match upon which Glasgow’s slender hopes of progression in Europe hinge. The opening Pool 3 losses at Exeter and at home to Leinster have left no more room for error. Maximum points from the last four games are needed if there is to be any chance of repeating last season’s historic march to the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Glasgow coach Dave Rennie assembled his squad in Stirling on Sunday for a get-together he hopes will inspire the kind of Warrior spirit needed to vanquish the Top 14 highfliers at home tonight and then on French soil next week.
“We did it for a few reasons,” explained Rennie. “We’ve put a lot of focus into culture and we want to make sure we are connecting with our communities and our history. Obviously, Stirling has a massive history in this region.
“Part of it was that we had guys all over the place and it was a good way of reuniting the squad. You’ve got the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn and Stirling Castle, there is just so much great history there that we can tap into. We had a great day up there on Sunday and we will feed off that for a number of weeks.”
As expected, Scotland centre Huw Jones will make his Glasgow debut but there was a bit of a surprise that Rennie has chosen to pair the 23-year-old with Australian centre Sam Johnson and left Alex Dunbar out completely.
Jones has played most of his 11 Scotland caps alongside Dunbar, who missed the final autumn Test against Australia but returned and scored a try for Glasgow against Cardiff last weekend.
Rennie confirmed that there was no injury to Dunbar and that is was purely a selection call. “We have gone for the two guys we think are in the best form. It is a bit of luxury in that we have some great options in midfield,” said the coach.
“It is good to bring in some fresh legs and there is a little bit of an X factor in Huw. We certainly want to attack tomorrow and hopefully the conditions will allow us to do that. He has been in fantastic form for Scotland as has Sam Johnson for us. It was not an easy decision that midfield pairing but two guys in great form.
“Huw is very familiar with a lot of the guys he is playing with. He hasn’t played with Sam Johnson but we are confident that he will adapt. A lot of our strikes and structures are not too foreign to what he has been using at Scotland, although maybe some of the terminology is different. He’s had to get a bit of homework done this week, but we’re confident he can cope with that.”
Montpellier lie second in the French Top 14 after being overtaken by La Rochelle, who beat them last weekend, but Rennie is expecting a fierce examination and a reunion with Cotter which has personal resonance for him.
“He is hugely respected in New Zealand. I coached against him when he was coaching Bay of Plenty,” said Rennie. “He did a great job there, had a stint at Crusaders and then moved to Clermont.
“He is a tough operator and he will be demanding physicality from his team. But he is an innovative thinker around the game as well. Montpellier have some great resources in their midst so it should be a hell of an occasion.”
It doesn’t take an expert on the intricacies of rugby strategy to see the obvious theme of tonight’s encounter as Glasgow will look to repeat what they did to Racing 92 last season and use pace and tempo to counter the physical threats coming their way.
“They have a massive team and have a huge backline,” said Rennie. “They will ask questions of us with their ball carriers. Vern will be keen for them to play at the right end of the field as well. They have a high kicking ratio in the competition. We expect them to be really brutal.”
Led by France’s international No 8 behemoth Louis Picamoles and orchestrated by the brilliant Kiwi stand-off Aaron Cruden, Rennie found it difficult to pinpoint specific threats.
“They have too many to mention,” he said. “Bismarck du Plessis is back from injury and they have a huge backline. We know a lot about Aaron Cruden and the two South African boys in midfield are both big men.
“They have [Fijian] Nemani Nadolo on one side of the field and [France cap] Benjamin Fall on the other, and they are unbelievable athletes.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’ve defended very well but we will find out a bit more about our boys under the blowtorch tomorrow night.”