Matt Fagerson v Billy Vunipola can define Glasgow-Saracens clash

Matt Fagerson says it will be an 'awesome challenge' today to face Billy Vunipola. Picture: SNS/SRU
Matt Fagerson says it will be an 'awesome challenge' today to face Billy Vunipola. Picture: SNS/SRU
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There used to exist a super useful website which ranked every top-flight professional team in Europe according to ability. It was quite scientific and about as accurate as these things can ever be.

It has disappeared now, whether a victim of Brexit or a simple financial necessity, and we are left with the European competitions as the only way to judge with any precision how Glasgow, for instance, match up to one of England’s top teams, say Saracens?

The two teams meet at Scotsoun this afternoon, a place Sarries have yet to visit. When these two teams last met was the quarter-finals of the 2016-17 tournament when Sarries triumphed 38-13 at home.

This Glasgow squad lack the consistency of the English opposition and this match does not look like a contest of equals. Saracens have won the English Premiership on four occasions, including last season, and this Champions Cup twice, their last win coming only two years ago. For their part Glasgow have won the PRO12. Once. Four seasons ago.

The match has thrown up any number of intriguing head to heads. The young pretender Adam Hastings against the England superstar Owen Farrell. Ryan Wilson gets to measure himself against Maro Itoje and Ruaridh Jackson has another chance to show his attacking verve against Alex Goode.

But the whole drama can be consolidated into one match-up,
the battle between Glasgow’s intelligent and courageous but flyweight No 8 Matt Fagerson and Saracens’ monstrous Billy Vunipola, who excels at the brutal business of carrying ball in heavy traffic.

“I’ve never played against him or Saracens, so it will probably be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever come up against,” says the younger of the fabulous Fagerson boys.

“I’m very excited and I’ve been doing my homework. It’s difficult for a player to be the perfect package, but Billy does get pretty close. He’s a pretty good ball carrier and he can smack boys in defence. I’ve had quite an extensive look at him and the rest of the back row, and there are obviously ways to exploit them. Hopefully we can do that on Sunday.

“I’m only 20 and grew up watching Six Nations rugby, so I’ve obviously seen him quite a bit. It’s been pretty cool watching all the international guys, so to play against one of them will be awesome, a big challenge. I’m excited for it.”

Someone asked Dave Rennie about what Fagerson (Jnr) brings to the team? The coach’s response focused on the youngster’s “great footwork” and you can’t help thinking that if today’s encounter was in front of the Strictly Come Dancing cameras Fagerson would have a fighting chance. Instead Vince Lombardi’s quote comes to mind:

“Football is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.”

The problem facing Fagerson and Glasgow lies in the fact that this afternoon’s match will entail a lot more colliding than dancing. Saracens’ pack is 63 kilograms heavier than Glasgow’s and the old rugby adage, if a team can be bullied it will be bullied, remains relevant.

If Sarries get their mauling game going then Glasgow’s soft centre could be exposed once again although it is not an eventuality that Fagerson is contemplating.

“In any team, the back row sets the physicality,” he insists. “Cully [Gibbens] always puts his body on the line, puts in big shots, and is 
very dominant in his tackle stuff 
and over ball. Ryan [Wilson] always puts his body on the line as well and I try to replicate that and do the same.

“This year, our pack has been pretty dominant at lineout time and we’ve scored a couple of tries from our maul. Our scrum has been pretty good at times as well.

“When people say that our forwards aren’t getting purchase, we don’t look at it too closely. We do have a very good maul, a very good lineout and scrum. We do have a very dominant front row and some big units behind them. I think people do exaggerate quite a bit, because we do have quite a dominant forward pack.”

Of course there is a way in which Glasgow can win this match; the English side start only nine-point favourites. Hastings kicks long and often to take the sting out of the infamous wolf pack. His chasers harass Goode into making mistakes. Glasgow avoid the sidelines to prevent Saracens’ rolling maul and they keep the ball moving in attack, even when making little or no headway, to tire the giant opposition pack. And they take whatever chances come their way.

They managed exactly that against Munster at the start of the season and if they can reproduce that same intensity over 80 minutes then Glasgow will cause plenty of problems. “If you dwell on them as individuals and what they’ve done, you can get caught up in it and focus too much on them,” says Fagerson.

“You’ve got to focus on yourself, I think. We were probably the victim of that two years ago down there, we focused on everything they were going to do and we changed our game to suit them. That’s what they want. A name’s a name but on the day anyone can make anyone else looked stupid. We’ve just got to concentrate on us.

“The boys are bitterly disappointed with the way they played when we went down there, so there’s a bit of angst to try to make amends for what happened. But again, if you get too caught up on wanting revenge or to make wrongs right… you’ve got to focus on yourself, play the game we want to play.”