The squad the new coach inherited was bruised from the cataclysmic end to the previous campaign which saw Glasgow Warriors eviscerated in Dublin by Leinster. Smith worked the players hard but the signs were not promising when both the club’s pre-season friendlies were cancelled. The first, against Worcester, was a casualty of the English club’s financial collapse. The second, against Ulster, was called off following the death of the Queen. Glasgow went into the new season undercooked, and it showed. They lost four of their opening seven matches. But from unpromising beginnings grew a formidable collective revival and the Warriors stand on the brink of history in Dublin this evening as they bid to become the first rugby club from Scotland to lift a European trophy.
Smith, a level-headed South African, has shown tough love, bringing players in for early morning “fat-burning sessions” but has been rewarded with a run of only two defeats in their last 19 games and a place in tonight’s EPCR Challenge Cup final against Toulon. “When I walked into the changing room for the first time, few of the players would have thought we’d be sitting here today,” said the coach. “We will be very proud and excited and humble for those people who have believed in us. We want to give something back to them. But that doesn’t mean we put extra pressure on ourselves. It’s not about beating records, it’s about being the best we can be and use this as a stepping stone for where we want to be. We don’t see this final as the ultimate piece of the puzzle for this group of players. We have even more aspirations going ahead. It would be fantastic to leave something behind, but it’s about using this experience.”
A key feature of Smith’s tenure has been his determination to pick on form and give everyone in the squad a chance to prove himself. Reputations and cap hauls count for little and those following the Warriors have learned to expect the unexpected. The coach was at it again yesterday when he revealed that Richie Gray and Rory Darge will be on the bench against Toulon. Gray, one of the Warriors’ most experienced players, made his 100th appearance for the club in their last match, against Munster, but it is Scott Cummings and JP du Preez who start in the second row. Darge’s omission is even more surprising. The Scotland international flanker is Glasgow’s breakdown king and has won more turnovers in the Challenge Cup this season than any other player involved in the final, but it has not been enough to convince Smith who has selected Matt Fagerson (6), Sione Vailanu (7) and Jack Dempsey (8) as his back row. Both Gray and Darge are likely to have an important role to play from the bench. Fraser Brown gets the nod at hooker, with Johnny Matthews as replacement, which means no place in the match-day 23 for George Turner, Scotland’s first choice No 2.
In the backs, Domingo Miotto will start at stand-off in the absence of the suspended Tom Jordan. The Argentine international will partner George Horne at half-back. Sione Tuipulotu (12) and Huw Jones (13) are the starting centres which means Stafford McDowall is on the bench and will likely cover stand-off as well as the centre berths as there is no orthodox 10 among the replacements, which is tough luck on the experienced Duncan Weir who has been overlooked. The wings are captain Kyle Steyn and Seb Cancelliere, with Ollie Smith at full-back.
Smith has tried to take the pressure off his own team by labelling Toulon favourites and labouring the point that the French side have lost four times previously in Challenge Cup finals. But he was not shying away from what a victory for Glasgow would mean to both club and city. “For the team it would be fantastic,” he said. “We started off eight months ago with a certain objective. For the city and for the club it would be important too. Of course, in my career a win would be up there. I have had some very good times with some special players, but obviously this year has been extraordinarily good because we managed to put the pieces of the puzzle together. To get to the final is a fantastic reward.”
Nigel Carolan, the Glasgow attack coach, noted this week that the Warriors’ game-plan was structured, in sharp contrast to their opponents, and that it was vital that the players stick to the script. “We just don’t want to get loose against Toulon who thrive on chaos,” said Carolan. “We’re very much a team who are orderly, we have processes planned for almost every facet of our game and it is about executing them as accurately as possible.” Miotti, who has started just eight games for Glasgow in two seasons, has been entrusted with maintaining order but the gifted Argentine fly-half also has an eye for the half-chance and his flair could make all the difference against a Toulon side who have selected Dan Biggar at 10.
There will be around 35,000 supporters inside the Aviva Stadium, with Glasgow’s travelling fans expected to comfortably outnumber those from Toulon. Dominic McKay, the chairman of European Professional Club Rugby, believes a win for Glasgow would provide a huge lift for rugby in this country. “I think it would be fantastic for the sport in Scotland for Glasgow to win,” said McKay, formerly of the SRU. “They’ve had a great season and they’re making great strides and I think everyone can see that, and the quality of the rugby they’re playing is a real joy to watch. I think it would be great for the sport in Scotland, and great for Scotland in general to have a successful team.”