Glasgow travel to Connacht’s Sportsground in Galway for the third time in succession even if four plus months separate this evening’s encounter from their last outing. Warriors fans will be hoping it is third time lucky after seeing their club come unstuck twice in the space of eight days at the tail end of last season.
The Warriors lost their final match of the regular season, but only after prop Sila Puafisi earned a red card, and they lost the semi-final one week later but again only after Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson clashed heads which resulted in both men leaving the field in the opening minutes.
Russell won’t play this evening but the good news from Gregor Townsend is that the Scotland stand-off is finally back in full contact training after a long lay-off.
“He has trained with the team for about a month,” Townsend admitted, “but with a pink bib on which means he shouldn’t be going anywhere near contact but he has been... let’s say he has been pretty confident in that area and this week was the first official return to contact.”
Russell’s role at playmaker is usurped by Peter Horne, with Australian Sam Johnson the surprise pick at inside centre. It says something of the strength of this Glasgow squad that Johnson remains an unknown quantity despite making several appearances for the Queensland Reds.
“Rory [Clegg] and Peter [Horne] are our two senior tens and obviously Peter can play 12 at the highest level,” said Townsend when quizzed about the midfield. “It’s really what came out of the pre-season. Sam Johnson has played really well, he combined well with Alex Dunbar.
“Last year he came at this time with a shoulder injury so he missed pre-season but he was pretty much available to play by the Six Nations and he had some really good games.
“He realised that he had to work on his conditioning to play at this level and he’s done that over the summer and he’s now getting the rewards. He’s young, he’s only 23 but we’re pleased with how he’s progressing.”
Elsewhere, former All Black hooker Corey Flynn starts on the bench, while the Italian international Leonardo Sarto makes his competitive bow on the right wing, Tommy Seymour fills the left and Stuart Hogg completes a dangerous back three. Scotland Under-20s breakaway Lewis Wynn could make his debut off the bench.
At the business end of the team sheet Gordon Reid and Pat McArthur line up beside Fagerson, who obviously has a tougher noggin than Russell. The second row sees Jonny Gray and Tim Swinson paired together, while the back row boasts another Italian Test player Simone Favaro alongside Ryan Wilson /Rob Harley.
Connacht have lost a few players over the summer, including Irish international Robbie Henshaw who joined Leinster, lock Ally Muldowney and USA Eagles’ stand-off AJ MacGinty. Not that Townsend is taking the reigning champions lightly after finishing second best in his last two visits to Ireland’s windy West Coast.
“They have had a summer to get guys used to those positions,” said Townsend when asked about the exodus, “and they seem to do really well at bringing players through from their own academy.
“We didn’t deserve to win [last time]. We didn’t play anywhere near our potential. We didn’t adapt to the circumstances that happened early on in the game.
“We have had two big incidents when we’ve played over in Galway with the red card the week before and then those two big injuries. Something like that might happen again and I hope we are a better team for it and how we have to get our focus back on what we believe will win us the game.”
Might the fact that Glasgow’s last two trips to the Sportsground have ended badly help galvanise these Warriors?
“I am sure that will provide motivation for the players involved,” replied Townsend. “Our last two opponents were Connacht so we know what to expect. In terms of motivation you start with the champions, it’s a great challenge, you start at the place you lost twice so we’ll be up for it.”