Sam Johnson broke his jaw against Sharks in Durban in October and has missed Glasgow’s last eight games as well as Scotland’s autumn Test series but returns to partner Stafford McDowall in the Challenge Cup pool match at the foot of the Pyrenees. Franco Smith, the Glasgow coach, was careful not to rush Johnson back but believes the 27-times capped centre now has the opportunity to play his way into Scotland contention with the Six Nations looming.
“It was the third time he has broken his jaw, so we wanted to give him the maximum time to recover properly and to build up his confidence in contact again,” said Smith. “Now is the perfect timing for him in this period to show all the qualities he has as an international player. It’s really exciting to have him back. It’s another good centre combination going in there along with Stafford.”
McDowall has been given the honour of captaining a much-changed Warriors side as they seek the win that would secure their qualification for the round of 16. It’s another significant step forward for McDowall who was named in Gregor Townsend’s autumn Scotland squad and has worked hard to re-establish himself at Glasgow after being lightly used by Danny Wilson, Smith’s predecessor.
“I’m really proud of Stafford,” said Smith. “He’s a natural leader and I think he’s proven a lot this year with his hard work and diligence. It’s a good compliment to where the club is at right now that a young guy like that can step up and lead as captain.”
As is his wont, Smith has shaken things up, making 12 alterations in total to the side that beat Stormers so impressively at Scotstoun on Sunday. He also has one eye on the Six Nations and will use his Scotland contingent sparingly.
“It’s not just about giving players game time,” said the coach. “A good team needs a good squad. There are some players who have a few bumps and bruises after a really brutal encounter against the Stormers. That was a really physical effort, so this gives us an opportunity to give some guys a rest and to allow them to get into the best possible condition for Scotland going into the Six Nations. For the next two or three weeks, we will also be managing the players with that in mind.”
Opportunity knocks for Euan Ferrie who has been selected for his first professional start at blindside flanker, with Cameron Neild at openside. Other changes in the pack see Nathan McBeth at loosehead, Johnny Matthews at hooker and the return of Richie Gray. The 6ft 10in Gray partners 6ft 11.5in JP du Preez in what is Glasgow’s tallest ever second-row partnership.
Josh McKay and Cole Forbes return in the back three, with Ollie Smith moving from full-back to wing, and Jamie Dobie and Domingo Miotti form a new half-back combination. Tom Gordon is on the bench after recovering from a calf injury but Murphy Walker is still missing due to a bulging disc in his neck which will rule him out for the next few weeks.