The last time Scottish rugby fans converged on London with hope in their hearts they beat a hasty retreat with their tails between their legs following that Twickenham rout in the Six Nations but Gregor Townsend has picked a strong Glasgow squad for tomorrow’s Champions Cup quarter-final which should be competitive against what the Warriors’ coach calls “the best team in Europe”.
If there was a surprise it was the inclusion of Henry Pyrgos as starting scrum-half, relegating Ali Price to the bench after the younger man had hit a hot streak, including that man-of-the-match performance against Connacht seven days ago.
Pyrgos is the more accurate kicker from hand and, in what is sure to be a tight tactical battle, that may have swung it for him.
“They have both been playing really well,” said Townsend by way of explanation. “It gives us a blend where both can have a big impact. Henry is our co-captain and his leadership will really help the team. There will be times when we will have to manage our game well and Henry has that experience.
“Ali has improved hugely in that area and he brings other strengths which we will be looking to see. We see them both having big roles in the game.”
Townsend has opted for a powerful blend in the third row of the scrum with Rob Harley the stopper at six, Adam Ashe brings his ball carrying ability to the No 8 shirt and Ryan Wilson is the everyman filling in at seven on Saturday, as he had done periodically during his career.
Wilson and Jonny Gray are the top two tacklers in this competition to date and the odds are on them stretching their lead at the top of that particular table after tomorrow’s match.
With Tim Swinson unavailable thanks to a four-week ban, the second row sees Gray line up alongside Brian Alainu’uese, although the Kiwi lock may have started in any event.
He brings a rare mix of power and athleticism to the role and his 140kgs will be needed to combat Sarries’ driving game.
Gray is just one who will want to exorcise a few demons. The big lock has enjoyed a charmed career to date but he copped some criticism following Scotland’s thumping at Twickenham.
Tomorrow is a chance to set the record straight, especially since he has had a week’s R&R to recharge the batteries. Gray is up against his English nemesis, Maro Itoje, who is currently half a lap ahead of him in the race for a Lions’ spot.
“He [Gray] was an option last week to be on the bench,” said his coach, “and we had discussions with him as to how he had recovered.
“By the middle of the week it was decided to give him the weekend off.
“When I said to him to have the weekend off he asked if he could go and train with the opposition? ‘No… it means you rest, not do more training!’ So he is eager to play.
“It’s a real big challenge for him, from a set piece point of view. It’s great working out what they might do in the lineout, what Itoje is going to do, what Jim Hamilton is going to do, what can we do to them? He loves the effort side of the game so how many carries can he get, how many big tackles can he get.
“As a club player, this is the ultimate challenge we will have.”
Incidentally, USA Eagle Greg Peterson starts on the bench despite not having played for Glasgow since September of last year. Townsend will be hoping he isn’t called upon in the first few minutes.
There are reportedly something in the region of 6,000 Glasgow fans expected to turn up at the Allianz Stadium, which is more than the club was attracting to home games a few short years ago. Townsend paid tribute to the supporters, while acknowledging the size of the task his team faces on Sunday lunchtime up against the European champions who boast four Scottish internationals in their matchday 23.
“I think they will know all about us. They have had two months’ preparation, they have four Scots in their squad, two of them are currently in the Scotland squad, so they know our players very well.
“Mark McCall is an excellent coach and he is from a Celtic background as well. They will know a lot about us. It’s just seeing how they defend what we want to do and how their attack can cope against our defence. It’s a chess match we don’t yet know what will happen.
“I have to say that those [Scottish] players are in really good form. Jim (Hamilton) has started a lot for Sacarens this year. Kelly [Brown] has been excellent off the bench. It is good to see Duncan Taylor back fit and Sean [Maitland] has been in top form for Saracens all season.”
Is there a danger of this match following the same pattern of that Twickenham humiliation?
“I hope not. We are playing Saracens, not England,” replied Townsend. “I would hope that there will be real determination not to miss this opportunity for a second time down in London.
“The Scottish guys – we had ten of the 15 that game – know that they did not deliver a true reflection of what they are capable of.
“They have to do this as the weekend or we are not going to be winning.”