Gregor Townsend got a taste of the medicine he regularly handed out to opposition coaches when he faced the conundrum last weekend of how to play against the handful that is Leone Nakarawa.
The Fijian forward, who became a firm favourite with the Scotstoun faithful, did not have his best game at Stade Yves Manoir six days ago when his former club stunned Europe with a 23-14 win over the French champions. But, as someone who knows better than anyone what Nakarawa is capable of, the Warriors coach admitted it was an uncomfortable experience.
Nakarawa has been moved back from lock to No 8 for tonight’s Scotstoun blockbuster as last year’s European Champions Cup runners-up face a win-or-bust match. They currently lie bottom of Pool 1 and know a third defeat would end their hopes of reaching the last eight.
“That’s the first time I’ve coached against him, and when you see him out there you do think ‘Let’s hope the ball doesn’t go to him, what a player he is’,” said Townsend yesterday.
“We did a really good job last week on him and we’ll have to do that again.”
Townsend only ever deployed Nakarawa at the back of the scrum sparingly and said: “He played for us at No 8 against Racing [a 22-5 win in Kilmarnock] last season. I’ve read that they see his future as a No 8 because he’s such a great attacker.
“You have someone of 6ft 7in or 6ft 8in at No 8, you can still play open rugby and have another option in your lineout. I can see the benefits from that.
“He always wanted to be a second row and we always had really good back rowers, so he was only ever moved there because we were short at back row. He’s so good around the set piece and the scrum, and he’s been used to playing at second row because there was no second row like him.
“There will be a few No 8s out there that are very good ball-carriers, but there were never really second rows like him, so it was a huge advantage having him there as a second row.
“But if you have him there as a No 8, what a lineout you have. You can do more in the scrum if you put in a heavier player – [Francois] van der Merwe is a huge, heavy second row, so obviously they think it will help their scrum moving Leone back to eight.”
Townsend noted that Racing will unleash a mammoth pack tonight – “the biggest pack of forwards ever assembled,” he reckons – but cautioned that doesn’t mean the French masterplan to save their European campaign is a limited attempt to grind Glasgow down up front.
With the talents behind the gargantuan scrum they present a double threat.
“I think they’ll look to do both,” said Townsend. “Last week they played a lot of rugby – Dan Carter moved the ball wide. So maybe they’re looking to mix that up with having a pack that’s more direct, more set-piece focused, with a back line that can still move the ball.
“They’ve brought in exciting wingers, in [Marc] Andreu and Teddy Thomas, who’s been out for a while, so it shows the quality: you lose an [Juan] Imhoff and a [Joe] Rokocoko and you bring in two French internationals.
“You can be big and still move pretty well. Leone does pretty well for a guy at 20 stone. And Ben Tameifuna is one of the best tightheads in terms of skills in open play, so size doesn’t mean you’re going to be slow. But it does mean they’ll put more weight on things like lineout drive and scrum and ball-carrying. It’s another challenge. We have to impose the way we want to play in attack, but also we have to defend with the same aggression, the same effort, as we did last week. We can force mistakes whether they go direct or go wide.”
In contrast to Racing’s nine changes – eight personnel and that Nakarawa positional switch, including a whole new starting front five – Glasgow make just the one change. Flanker Simone Favaro has not recovered from the shoulder injury he picked up in Paris and Josh Strauss comes in at No 8 to make his 100th appearance for the club.
“The bench have a big role, as they did last weekend,” said Townsend. “I can’t see this game being decided in 50-60 minutes; it will be decided in the last 20.”