Fraser Brown: Altitude matters but Glasgow Warriors can beat the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld

Players will be gasping for air during the warm-up

I won my first Scotland cap at Loftus Versfeld, against Italy in a quadrangular tournament in 2013. It was eight of the most tiring minutes of my career. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of being there, the nerves with it being my first cap, or the precarious state of the game when I entered the pitch. Or perhaps it was the altitude…

It’s a tough place to go as Glasgow Warriors will discover when they play the Bulls there on Saturday in what is a huge game in the context of the top four in the United Rugby Championship.

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There’s a famous sign at Loftus Versfeld as you walk out on the pitch which says ‘Altitude. 1350m. It matters.’ And it does but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not possible to win there.

There are two schools of thought on this. There’s the one that tries to tell you it doesn’t matter, and that if you fly in and fly out it doesn’t have that much of a physiological effect on your body. Perhaps, but the mind can be far more powerful than your body and when you’re gasping for air during the warm-up you tend to hear a little voice in your brain telling you, ‘I’m at bloody altitude, it matters!’

That sign is designed to get in your head and I love that. You are meant to use every single tool in your arsenal so what’s the point in having a home ground at altitude and not using it to gain some sort of advantage?

The other theory accepts that the altitude will affect you, even when you are jogging around the pitch in the warm-up. But if you can accept and understand that and get over that hurdle and realise there will be times in the game when you can hardly speak, you will recover. If you can get over the mental shock, you can get through it and develop resilience.

When you go there for the first time it can hit you really hard, and it’s during the warm-up you first experience it because you end up gasping for air. You do get a chance to recover during the game but there will also be long periods of play where you’ll be battling to breathe.

Glasgow Warriors finished second best to the Bulls when the sides met at Loftus Versfeld during the United Rugby Championship on 29 April 2022.  (Photo by Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix/Shutterstock)Glasgow Warriors finished second best to the Bulls when the sides met at Loftus Versfeld during the United Rugby Championship on 29 April 2022.  (Photo by Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix/Shutterstock)
Glasgow Warriors finished second best to the Bulls when the sides met at Loftus Versfeld during the United Rugby Championship on 29 April 2022. (Photo by Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix/Shutterstock)

The one thing I would say about Franco Smith’s Glasgow is that they are an incredibly fit team, aerobically and in terms of contact conditioning. That’s down to Franco, Cillian Reardon, the club’s head of athletic performance, and the players.

They need to be super fit for the type of rugby they want to play. Franco famously says that you play for 90 minutes, not 80. They will be one of the fittest teams to go to Loftus Versfeld. They are well equipped physiologically so a lot of it will come down to mental preparation and the ability to understand that you will feel fatigued and short of breath at times. It’s a different experience but you do recover. It will also be hot in Pretoria on Saturday because it’s an afternoon kick-off.

I found that when playing at altitude the first thing to go was communication because it’s difficult to get air into your lungs to talk to each other. And when communication goes, your skill-set goes. You make little errors and we saw that last year when Glasgow played the Lions in the rearranged game. It was a fast-paced game at altitude and there were a lot of tired bodies and people were struggling to speak at times.

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Munster last month became the first European club team to ever win a game at Loftus so that shows you what a difficult place it is to go. But it can be done and they’ve given Glasgow a very clear and obvious blueprint.

They may have a different style to Glasgow, but winning rugby is essentially all the same: you have to win collisions, you have to win your set-piece, you have to defend well and you have to be accurate with ball in hand.

Glasgow will be over there for a fortnight, with the Bulls up first this weekend followed by the Lions in Johannesburg a week later.

Ideally, I think Glasgow would have preferred to play the Lions first. Franco Smith will probably kick me out the building for saying this, but on the back of having a free weekend to prepare for South Africa, they could have gone all guns blazing against the Lions, tried to get a result, and then anything they got from Loftus Versfeld against the Bulls would have been a bonus.

But it’s Bulls first. Glasgow have done really well to get themselves into top spot in the URC with three rounds of fixtures remaining but the Bulls will still have aspirations to finish at the summit. They’re seven points behind Glasgow in fourth place but two of their final three fixtures are at home and the other one is in South Africa, against the Sharks.

The loss last month to Munster will have hurt them because they would have been expecting to win all their home games.

It’s hard to predict but I think Glasgow will need at least four points from these two games in South Africa, plus five points at home against Zebre on the final weekend to finish in top spot at the end of the regular season. Leinster, who are four points behind in second place, have got Ospreys, Ulster and Connacht and I can’t see them dropping many points.

Glasgow definitely have the players to win over there but they will go about it in a different way to Munster. Under Franco, they play possession-based rugby. They’re comfortable playing with ball in hand, they like to defend with the ball rather than without the ball, but still have one of the best defences in the league.

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Glasgow have been so comfortable with ball in hand recently that when they lose the ball when they’re defending they have this mindset that they’ll just get the ball back, and the attack and defence work together nicely.

Their game plan is very confrontational. They’ve got one of the best scrums - I think they win more penalties on their own scrum than anyone else in the league. We’ve spoken at length about Glasgow’s strength in the maul and that will be another key battleground on Saturday because the Bulls have got a terrifying maul at times.

I think the game will be won in and around the set-piece and in the collisions in the first couple of phases after the set-piece. If you are able to control the set-piece and the momentum in the first two collisions immediately after the set-piece it will go a long way to dictating whether you can control the game.

If the Bulls can get over the gainline, get a maul going with one or two breakout plays then they will get momentum in the first two or three phases. They favour quite a simple style of rugby, they’ll play round the corner with big ball carriers, they're very aggressive at the breakdown, they make it very hard for you to slow them up and, out wide, they’ve got some really dangerous backs. So you have to try to halt that momentum in the first couple of phases. If you can do that, do they have the attacking game plan to break Glasgow down? I’m not sure they do. So slowing down the Bulls’ ball will be a huge aim for Glasgow.

Glasgow Warriors have been preparing for this trip for a while. The squad have been doing breathing exercises involving holding their breath while doing certain exercises. Every time we’ve gone to altitude or somewhere hot with Glasgow or Scotland there has been some sort of new protocol. It’s about trying to find those one-percenters that can make a difference.

There’s quite a bit of science behind the breathing exercises but I always feel that the physical effects are probably less important than the psychological ones. If you believe it works, then it works, and it should help you perform.



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