Gregor Townsend says his side will be facing Europe’s form side at Scotstoun tonight as they bid for that elusive great leap forward to the knockout stages of the Champions Cup.
Munster have been there and done it, with four final appearances and two wins, but they haven’t been kings of Europe since 2008. When the Warriors tore them to shreds in that famous Guinness Pro12 final win in Belfast two years ago, the famous red jerseys looked a rather faded hue.
There was a sense of the old Munster in October when, emotionally raw and galvanised by the shock and sadness of Anthony Foley’s tragic death, they put Glasgow to the sword in this season’s first Pool 1 meeting between the sides at an electric Thomond Park.
Rather than a one-off spike of emotion, however, the Limerick-based province have kept the momentum going, continued to lead the European pool and surged to second place in the Pro12 with a run which included a 16-15 win at Scotstoun in the autumn.
“I have been impressed,” said Townsend. “I was impressed when we played them just after the Six Nations down at Kilmarnock last season [a narrow 27-24 win for Glasgow].
“We played good rugby that day and I thought they had the makings of a really good side but thought it would be another year before these young players – [Peter] O’Mahony, the Scannells [Rory and Niall] – would kick on but they have done that this year.
“[Stand-off] Tyler Bleyendaal being fit has helped them. Their coaching knowledge is coming through and their gameplan has brought them a lot of success. Defensively, they have been outstanding with the best defensive record in our league and, I think, Europe.
“You put that together and you have young players playing well and their key players fit, so O’Mahony, Conor Murray, CJ Stander, Simon Zebo. These are quality players. Munster are showing they are one of the quality teams in Europe. They showed that since our game. One defeat and that was in the last kick of the game against Leicester.”
The back-row battle will be key this evening, with the Warriors fielding the same trio who shone so brightly in that Pro12 final – Rob Harley, Ryan Wilson and Josh Strauss.
Jack O’Donoghue takes the place of injured flanker Tommy O’Donnell as Munster captain. O’Mahony and Stander continue at blindside and No 8
Wilson, in particular, was outstanding that historic night in Belfast and is relishing another ferocious contest.
“They’ve got a very strong back row but we feel we can match it and outplay them,” he said. “We expect very much the same as they always bring, which is a very physical game with some big ball carriers. They play a game which is very well suited to them, they exit well and then, when they get in our half, they just play round the corner with big ball-carriers who carry hard and make it over the gain line.”
The versatile Wilson is at openside this evening but pinpointed Stander as a key man in the opposition.
“He’s just a very direct ball-carrier who’s strong in the carry and strong in the tackle. He’s good under the high ball and has a good all-round game,” said the Glasgow and Scotland forward.
“He’s had a fantastic season for Munster and went well with Ireland too, so he’s someone we’ll be looking to stop because a lot of their forward play and break outs come through him. If you can stop Stander there’s a good chance that you can slow their rhythm down a bit.”
Wilson added that, while respect for Munster was sky high in the Glasgow ranks, there would be no sense of intimidation come kick-off.
“No. We’re at our home ground. We said that this season we wanted to get back to what Scotstoun’s been from years before, which is our fortress, somewhere where people don’t come and win.
“We want to make sure we win all our home games. We’re not intimidated by them, although we know they’re a very good team on a fantastic run of form at the moment as well. So they’ll be looking to win as much as we will.”
That 38-17 thumping by a fired-up 14-man Munster in the first pool meeting has Glasgow on red alert but Wilson rejects any suggestion that the Warriors have anything to atone for after that exceptional occasion.
“If you look back, after that we played Munster here and just lost by that one point. But every week we go out playing at home knowing that we have to win for the fans because they turn up and fill the stands and make a lot of noise for us,” he said.
“We’ll try not to think too much about that Munster game back then. There were a special set of circumstances that game was played under. But since then we’ve had two really good wins in Europe [over Racing 92] so we’ll be looking to carry that on.”
Wilson insisted that belief within the squad has never been higher that they can push on into the business end of European competition.
“We’re in the best position we’ve ever been in Europe and we know that if we go out and win tonight then we have just one game down at Leicester,” he said.
“And we’re all confident we can go and win down there to get the points we need to go through. If we win this weekend and stop Munster from getting the bonus point, or win with a bonus point, then we know there’s a good chance we could go through, but we want a home quarter-final. That’s what we’re going for.”
Keith Earls, the man who was red carded early in the first game for a dangerous tackle on Glasgow hooker Fraser Brown, also returns to the Munster line-up.