Glasgow Warriors coach Dave Rennie insists that the prospect of facing the club he is about to join will not faze Jonny Gray and he will be motivated to prove his worth.
The Scotland lock will leave Glasgow in the summer to join the English Premiership leaders, who the Warriors face this afternoon in a make-or-break Heineken Champions Cup Pool 2 showdown.
Glasgow coach Rennie, who also departs at the end of the season to become Australia coach, is sure that Gray will be fired up today as the Warriors, who are second in the table on nine points, behind today’s opponents’ 19, and trying to keep their hopes of making it to the elite competition’s knockout stage for a third time alive.
“You know what you get with Jonny. He’s a lot about detail and he’s also a lot about sleep. He loves his sleep, so he’ll have a full tank on Saturday,” said the Glasgow coach.
“He’s heading off to join Exeter so it’s a great opportunity for him to show [Exeter director of rugby] Rob Baxter why they’ve spent the money on him. He’s excited for the game and we expect him to go well.”
Gray will, in time, be teaming up with his former Scotstoun pal and Scotland team-mate Stuart Hogg, who is named at full-back in the Chiefs’ line-up today.
It will be strange to see the star No 15 looking to hurt the pro-team that made his career, but Rennie insisted the Hogg factor had not played a major part in preparations this week.
“They [Exeter] have so many tricks to concern ourselves with that you can’t just isolate Hoggy,” said Rennie. “We know a lot about him, he is very dynamic with the ball but the boys all know what foot he steps off and are all screaming at him when he has the ball.
“He has such a big kicking game and is a great player isn’t he? We know a lot about him but we know a lot about all their players.”
Gray’s return at lock with Scott Cummings are two of 11 changes Rennie has made from the team who dealt with the trip to face Benetton in Treviso last weekend.
Props Oli Kebble and Zander Fagerson are back in the front row, while Ryan Wilson switches to blindside in a back row that includes openside Callum Gibbins as skipper and Matt Fagerson, back from suspension, at No 8.
Nick Grigg’s head injury means Huw Jones and Sam Johnson fill the midfield berths again, with George Horne and Adam Hastings at half-back, and Tommy Seymour back on the wing as Glenn Bryce gets a chance at full-back.
After a 34-18 away defeat by today’s opponents in November and a 12-7 loss at home to La Rochelle last month, Rennie accepts it’s win-or-bust time today. “It was a disappointment against La Rochelle at home which put us under a bit of pressure,” said the Kiwi. “We know we need to win it. We’re not talking about bonus points because in the end you just need to go out and win and if you can pick up four tries that would be great. If we lose, we are out, if we win we are in with a slim chance. We’ll see how the other things [including La Rochelle’s late clash at home to Sale Sharks in Pool 2] pan out. But our job is just to get a win this weekend.”
As expected, the re-signed Fiji lock and former European player of the year, Leone Nakawara, is not included in the matchday 23 but may come back in for the final pool match at Sale next weekend.
“He’s definitely an option for next week,” explained Rennie. “We wanted to make sure we’ve got a bit of work into him this week and got a bit of clarity into where he was at physically.
“He had travelled all the way back from Fiji and has a lot to learn.
“I’ve been very impressed with him, he has picked up all our line-out structure and stuff really quickly and is getting his head around our structure round the track. He has a bit of learning to do but is a smart man and is going well. He is definitely an option for next week.”
Rennie said lessons had been learned from what was a pretty emphatic beating by the Chiefs at Sandy Park in the second round of the competition last year.
“We lost the kicking battle in that first 20 minutes of the second half. Made an error down there and then they scored off it,” recalled Rennie.
“They were able to apply a lot of pressure to Adam [Hastings] who did a lot of the kicking but Glenn Bryce kicks really well and we have done a lot of work round that part of our game to make sure everyone is chipping in round the kicking options and we are prepared to play and kick from wide channels when that is on as well.”