A gap weekend in the Six Nations will give Gregor Townsend and his Scotland squad a brief but much-needed chance to recover and recalibrate after a bruising period in which they have not only lost their first two matches in the championship, but also star player Finn Russell following an internal dispute which has turned into a very embarrassing public spat. As a result, attention will be diverted this weekend towards the pro teams and their push to make the Pro14 play-offs.
Glasgow Warriors are back in action tonight when they host Zebre in their first outing since putting Sale Sharks to the sword in the Champions Cup four weeks ago, and they are boosted by the availability of scrum-half George Horne, hooker George Turner, flanker Tom Gordon and winger Kyle Steyn, who have all been involved in the wider Scotland training squad during the last month but have had minimal game-time involvement.
Horne, Turner and Gordon are named in the starting XV against Zebre, while Steyn is on the bench, and all four will be conscious that this is a chance to state their case for a call-up to the Scotland matchday squad to take on Italy in Rome next Saturday.
“There’s no real talk about Scotland and getting opportunities there – we’ve got no control over that and all they can do is perform well for us,” said Warriors head coach Dave Rennie. “I think the good thing with our Scotland boys is every time they get an opportunity to come back from Scotland camp, they jump all over it and that tells you a lot about their character as men and the character of the group. We’re rapt to have them back in and expect to see some impact from them.”
Meanwhile, No 8 Matt Fagerson will also view the game as an opportunity to push for a Scotland recall having missed out on selection for the original Six Nations training squad due to a lack of recent games.
“He had a severe rib injury and has not played an enormous amount of footie recently, but he has looked good and trained well, got through a lot of contact yesterday, so we are confident he is good to go,” said Rennie
The spotlight will also be on Oli Kebble, who has switched from loose-head to tight-head prop to compensate for the unavailability of Zander Fagerson [rested by Scotland], D’Arcy Rae, Siua Halanukonuka and Petrus de Plessis [all injured].
“He is predominantly a loose-head but has played a little bit at tight-head for the Stormers [in South Africa before joining Warriors in 2017],” explained Rennie. “He is a big man, powerful and has scrummaged on the tighthead the last couple of weeks and gone really well. It is a different challenge for him, but we have four tightheads injured or unavailable, so he has put his hand up and we expect him to do a good job for us.
“Aki Seiuli is going really well for us at loose-head, so this allows us to start both of them. Alex Allan has 100 games for us and comes on to the bench. It is a good mix for us.”
Warriors signed two tight-head props in Gaston Cortes and Ewan Mcquillan as emergency cover earlier this week, but this game came too soon for them.
“The advantage of having Oli is that he understands our structures and can slot in seamlessly there,” explained Rennie. “The other guys have a lot to learn around our line-outs, our maul, our attack and defence, our structures, and so on. It is a fair bit to take in and we are trying to give them a bit of time to do that. We will see how Oli goes this week.”
Having struggled for consistency this season, Warriors appeared to have finally found their feet at the turn of the year, so a month lay-off was perhaps frustrating as they look to build up a head of steam for a charge at the play-offs during the second half of the campaign – but Rennie says that the opportunity to recharge batteries was long overdue.
“We played really well in the month before the break, but I still think it has come at a good time,” he said. “We had 22 weeks of consecutive playing or training so physically it was good to recharge and everybody has come back in full of beans and ready to go.
“There’s not a lot of margin for error [in the play-off race] but we’re in a similar position to last year and since we’ve been in this spot, we’ve fronted really well against Treviso and then our two European games, so the added pressure is good for us.”