H alf a dozen or more pundits from south of the Border have Glasgow coming bottom of their Champions Cup pool; predictions to be stuck up on the dressing-room noticeboard. It’s a hard pool certainly, one of the two toughest. Exeter are the English champions, having beaten Saracens with a last-minute try in the final, just a few weeks after Saracens had given Glasgow a bit of a thumping in the quarter-final at Allianz Park. Montpellier, meanwhile are top of the French League, and Leinster – well, we all know just how good Leinster can be.
Nevertheless, neither Exeter nor Montpellier have a good record – yet – in the European Cup while, last season, Glasgow beat Leicester and Racing home and away. They were unfortunate in the timing of their match against Munster in Limerick – the week after Anthony Foley’s sad sudden death. Munster were so super-charged that day that I reckon they would have beaten any team in the competition, at Thomond Park anyway.
Starting away to Exeter is a stiff challenge, though for a team that has just gone to South Africa and beaten the Cheetahs on the High Veldt not, surely, a daunting one. Exeter are a real club, with a passionate local support. They’re in a position now that few five years ago would have expected them to be in. With Rob Baxter in charge they are well-managed and well coached, and they haven’t bought success by recruiting ready-made stars, the route taken by Toulon who have won two of the last three Cups. They are not flashy, and with Jack Nowell out injured, it’s quite likely that none of their players will be in Eddie Jones’ England team – even though Henry Slade is, from what I’ve seen, the best 13 in England, and their young No 8, Sam Simmonds offers something that the bulldozers Jones prefers don’t.
Still, Glasgow are in pretty good form, the only unbeaten side in the three European Pro Leagues. Not all their performances have been top-notch, but winning without being at your best is usually the mark of a very good team.
On the other hand, their win in Bloemfontein and their demolition of Munster at Scotstoun were decidedly impressive. Against the Cheetahs they twice rescued a match that was in danger of slipping away from them; and that’s good too. Branding them underdogs in this Pool is silly.
Their last two tries were made possible by delicious attacking kicks from Finn Russell. I’ve been saying for years – perhaps boring some readers by repetition – that teams, not only Scottish ones, are too often reluctant to kick in attack, preferring the much-applauded patience and going through the phases. Advocates of that conservative approach might point to a moment in Thursday’s night’s Challenge Cup match between Gloucester and Pau when, after building a few phases, the Gloucester stand-off Owen Williams kicked diagonally to the left. Unfortunately for him the ball went straight to the Pau winger, Frank Haili, who galloped 70 or 80 metres to score.
Williams should have been more patient, shouldn’t he? Well, no. The intention was right, only the execution at fault.
In any case, how often does one see a patient build-up, though phase after phase, end with a knock-on, a turnover or the concession of a penalty for holding on? But this never receives the criticism that is directed at a player whose attacking kick concedes possession.
Against the Cheetahs, Russell’s delicate chip was caught by Ruaridh Jackson, pictured, who had anticipated it nicely, and after four passes Henry Pyrgos was in under the posts. Then, a few minutes later, Finn saw that the Cheetahs’ defence, anticipating a succession of forward drives, had got very narrow.
His kick to the wing was so perfectly weighted that Rob Harley, who had cleverly stayed out wide, had only to keep his eyes on the ball in order to dot it down behind the try-line. Perfect.
My point is that Glasgow would probably have lost that match if Russell hadn’t had the vision and courage to kick, but instead had preferred to play safe and go through the phases.
A lot of stand-offs would not have taken on the responsibility, but Russell did just as Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett would have, George Ford and perhaps Jonny Sexton likewise.
Two other points: how well Jackson is playing at full-back, so well, indeed, that Stuart Hogg has scarcely been missed; 15 is surely Jackson’s best position. Second, what a marvellous recruit Callum Gibbins evidently is. He’s already as important to Glasgow as Sean O’Brien has been for years to Leinster.
My one fear for today is that Exeter have a very good set scrum, while Glasgow’s has been creaking too often. Indeed, Exeter have two powerful front-rows. On this season’s form, one can’t say that Glasgow have even one.