Glasgow’s favourite foes stand between Gregor Townsend’s team and the coach’s last shot at European glory.
Whenever Glasgow have a big match looming just over the horizon, the odds are that the opposition will gallop over the hill clad in red. Wherever Glasgow land on rugby’s Monopoly board, Munster seem to be close at hand; the two clubs have shared any number of dramatic encounters over the years, which have added spice given the clash of contrasting rugby philosophies.
Munster had to be wrestled into submission at the semi-final stage for Glasgow to reach their first ever PRO12 final back in 2014 and Munster, again, had to be bested when Glasgow eventually won the championship one year later.
Now Munster have to be beaten if Glasgow are to realise their long-held ambition of an appearance in the European quarter-finals.
Journalists like to simplify a story, pinpoint key moments in time and argue with the benefit of hindsight that they proved pivotal. While the Irish province have a proud tradition in Europe, winning the trophy on two occasions, I put it to Glasgow co-captain Henry Pyrgos that Glasgow’s 51-24 shellacking of Munster in March 2013 finally persuaded the Warriors that they were the equal of the men in red.
“Beating them at home in 2013 was obviously a big statement,” argues one of the game’s thinkers, “but I don’t think it was necessarily one game. Over the last four or five years we have been really competitive against teams consistently both home and away.
“When I joined [Glasgow, in 2010] there was a feeling that we could go out and play well against Munster and beat them and that was before the PRO12 final. Having beaten them in that final, winning big games against them like that when it really matters is what it is about.”
But those back-to-back victories over Racing’92, I try again, in the third and fourth rounds were surely seminal moments for Glasgow in the context of the European Cup?
“I don’t think it was a seminal moment,” Pyrgos still isn’t buying what I am selling. “There is a lot of belief in the squad. We thought we could go there and win and backing it up at home was good; it’s never easy to get that level of performance at home against quality opposition. We do have that belief, we spoke about it, we have been close in Europe, we think we are good enough to qualify but we need to prove it, we have to go and do it.”
The scrum-half sat out yesterday’s match against the Cardiff Blues with a bruise to his knee bone that is as painful as it sounds but that isn’t his only problem. The Warriors’ co-captain is also under threat from rival Ali Price who offers something a little racier than the tactical nous and understated excellence of Pyrgos. It’s one of Gregor Townsend’s close calls but you fancy the more experienced man will still, barring any further accidents, get the nod to start against Munster next Saturday just as he did in the second-round tie at Thomond.
That match occurred one week after the death of coach Anthony Foley, Thomond was a cauldron of emotion and Munster were not to be denied. Glasgow found themselves playing against 16 men so when Munster centre Keith Earls was red carded inside the first quarter, the Irishmen effectively reduced to 15, the spirit of their departed coach in every player more than compensating for the loss of the Irish international.
But Munster can only draw from that particular well sparingly. Glasgow are difficult to beat at home, having seen off Northampton, Leicester and Bath in recent seasons, and are slowly making their own history, growing their culture, adding one brick on top of another, win by win, until Scotstoun becomes a tough destination for any team.
One sign of Glasgow’s growing maturity is their naked ambition. The club had two goals at the start of the season and they make no bones about it; to win the Guinness PRO12 and to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup.
“When Gregor first arrived he had a slide saying that we wanted to be the first Scottish team to win a title and I think that was really good,” says Pyrgos harking back a few years.
“We used to come in every week after a game and that would go up as the first slide. It was always there. I think it was good for us to have those goals. I think they are realistic targets, they are obviously not easy but they are realistic. I think it’s good having that out there as a squad of players, working really hard, it’s a massive drive for us every week.”
While Munster may be shorn of the O’Connells and O’Garas of this world, they are doing pretty well without them as the “Ewing Principle” predicts. Only when star player Patrick Ewing left the New York Knicks did the team flourish. Perhaps something similar has happened to Munster who have lost just one of their ten fixtures since Foley’s unfortunate passing, a two-point defeat by Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.
It doesn’t matter much because the plain facts are simple enough. Glasgow have two matches left in Pool 1 and if they win them both they will almost certainly qualify and probably as pool toppers with the tantalising possibility of a home semi-final on offer.
“Obviously it sounds simple but Munster are playing extremely well at the moment and Leicester have a new head coach,” says Pyrgos. “I have never played there [Welford Road] but it’s not an easy place to go. But having our destiny in our own hands is how we want it and we probably haven’t been in such a good position since I have been here. We have a good chance.”
After so many near misses in Europe, this looks like Glasgow’s best shot at the big leagues. Whatever the state of play, it is definitely Townsend’s last roll of the dice before he swaps Scotstoun for Murrayfield and who knows how many players might follow him out the door?
Surely, I try once last time, next weekend’s clash is Glasgow’s biggest game ever given what is at stake?
“I think winning a trophy, winning the league which we hadn’t done before was huge,” Pyrgos pats the hyperbole back over the net with typical panache, “but it is the next biggest game.”