He has enjoyed a stellar career thus far but Jonny Gray will start the biggest game of Glasgow’s season sat on the substitutes’ bench. His usual place in the second row alongside Tim Swinson is filled by Scott Cummings, the youngster beginning to realise his almost limitless potential.
“It’s more about Scott,” replied Warriors coach Dave Rennie when asked about the decision to leave Gray out of the starting XV against Saracens in today’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Allianz Park. “He’s done an excellent job around calling our lineout, he’s made really good shifts around his physicality, he’s a really good athlete, runs good lines.
“He’s just played really well. We wanted to reward that. He is a big part of our defensive lineout, our defensive maul and so on. We’d just like to stick with the combination we had last week so Jonny will make an impact off the bench this week.”
There was some talk that Gray was carrying a shoulder injury and while Rennie conceded that his lock had struggled in the past the coach insisted that was behind him now.
On the subject of sore shoulders there was also a welcome return for Stuart Hogg who injured his joint in the Six Nations match against Ireland and has not played since. He takes his place at full-back and, since he joins Exeter next season, the Hawick man will be keen to leave Glasgow on a high.
“Yeah, brilliant,” replied Rennie when asked if it was good to have his star back. “You can imagine he is at his effervescent best. He is desperate to be out there and he brings a lot of confidence.
“Obviously he is lethal with the ball in hand but the quality of his kicking game is really important for us this week as well. We’re rapped to have him back.”
The other big call Rennie made was to opt for Adam Hastings over Peter Horne at stand-off. The Kiwi suggested there was not much to choose between the two and since Horne had only started training again late last week, the decision was an easy one.
“Peter didn’t train until Thursday, and there was a question mark at the start of the week about whether we would get him back at all, so we made the call to go with Adam, who has been in really good form for Scotland,” said Rennie. “He’s got a bit of x-factor about him, hasn’t he? A really good skill-set, and we’re confident that he’ll steel up for this pretty important encounter.”
Hastings is known primarily as a running ten but Glasgow’s kicking game, as Rennie alluded to with Hogg, may prove key in turning the tables on a team who have won the last three encounters between these two teams. While the Warriors usually field a backline of ankle-biters, today’s 10-15 are giants in comparison and Glasgow may adopt a simpler, more direct game plan as a result.
Rory Hughes and Kyle Steyn bring muscularity to the flanks and little if anything will run over or through the midfield pairing of Sam Johnson and Stafford McDowall. Glasgow will keep the ball in hand when the front line numbers are in their favour but we should expect to see a lot more kicking from first receivers Hastings/Hogg, especially in that opening quarter.
Sarries derive much of their energy from making big defensive hits behind the gain line and the easiest way to negate this is to turn the defensive line until the speed goes out of their game or they drop one or more defenders into the backfield to deal with the barrage, opening up space elsewhere.
The last time these two teams met in January, Glasgow clung onto the hosts’ coat tails, still in touch at 24-19 with the game well into the final 15 minutes when Sarries came up with two late scores, winning less comfortably than the 38-19 final score indicated. Glasgow pride themselves on their conditioning but they lost that one in the home stretch and Rennie was asked if his bench had the finishing power to get the job done today?
“We are minus a couple of backs from last time we played them, Nick Grigg, Tommy Seymour and DTH van der Merwe are all out injured, but I think we’ve got some pretty good depth,” he said. “Callum Gibbins didn’t play last time, so we’ve got better depth throughout which means that our bench is a bit stronger this time.
“They [the Glasgow bench] will have a really big impact but Saracens will have a good bench as well. We are really happy with that, strong up front while George and Pete [Horne] and Niko [Matawalu] can add a bit of spark. Obviously it is vital that our starting group lays the foundation.”