You struggle to reach a Wimbledon quarter-final for the first time and you find you are up against Roger Federer or Andy Murray. This, as it were, is where Glasgow find themselves tomorrow, playing the European and English champions, Saracens, at Allianz Park. Saracens have never lost a European match there: played 12, won 12. In the Champions Cup, as in the Six Nations, it’s hard to win away from home. Few do so, nobody yet at Allianz Park.
We’ve been speculating about the number of Scottish Lions there may be. One? Two? Three? Four? Well, there are four certain Lions in the Saracens team: Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers. Last week, Saracens ran in eight tries against Bath, who are fourth in the English Premiership. Chris Ashton, the prolific try-scorer England no longer need, scored two, Sean Maitland one.
Glasgow, too, had a fine win last week in a highly entertaining match against Connacht. Tomorrow’s game offers a very different challenge. Connacht play a handling game with great skill; they rarely kick the ball. As Shane Horgan said, Connacht “know only one way of playing.” Saracens know several.
They kick a lot. Richard Wigglesworth, at scrum-half, doesn’t fit Eddie Jones’s requirements, but he is a master of the box-kick, arguably, after Conor Murray, the best in Europe. So Stuart Hogg. Tommy Seymour and Lee Jones will be under bombardment. Outside him, the astute and skilful Owen Farrell can operate in a comfort zone because Wigglesworth almost never gives him bad ball. Saracens have talent across the back division, but they play the power-driven forward game too. They soften the opposition with driving mauls, not only from the line-out. If they don’t win a penalty they release ball to the backs from an advancing platform.
In the past, Glasgow have suffered and conceded tries to driving mauls against English clubs. Their defence of the maul has improved hugely since Dan McFarland became their forwards coach. It had to, and it will have to be at its best tomorrow if they aren’t to be battered into submission. Then they will have to cope with Billy Vunipola exploding off the side of the maul or from the set scrum. Their defence will be tested as it had rarely been tested.
That’s the dark side. Glasgow, however, can themselves cause problems, as Racing92 (beaten by Saracens in last year’s final) and Leicester have both discovered, home and away. They play a game that is both well-structured and capable of creating and taking chances when play becomes open and unstructured. They have players who regularly breach the gain-line, thus permitting the backs to exploit any space that appears, and few in Europe do this more effectively than Finn Russell, Hogg and Seymour, all proven creators and scorers of tries.
Gregor Townsend’s selection is interesting. Henry Pyrgos starts at scrum-half rather than Ali Price, even though Price has been in outstanding form. Pyrgos brings greater control; he’s a better game-manager than Price is yet and he has more big match experience. No doubt Price will come on before the hour mark to bring not only fresh legs but flair. He will be what Eddie Jones calls “a finisher” rather than merely a replacement. The same probably goes for Nick Grigg, who at centre has the priceless ability to hit the line at speed and at an unexpected angle.
Backs, of course, rarely win matches unless the forwards are doing – and have done – their job. Glasgow have the Scotland front row of Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown and Zander Fagerson, who held their own pretty well – better than many expected – in the Six Nations. Jonny Gray, rested last week, is the heart and soul of the Glasgow pack and has something to prove after the disappointment of Twickenham.
His partner at lock, the massive New Zealander Brian Alainu’uese, is in a fine vein of form, regularly carrying deep into enemy territory. No doubt Gregor Townsend would have liked to have Josh Strauss available to do that too, but young Adam Ashe, after a long absence on account of injury, has been showing signs of the form that a couple of years back made him such an exciting prospect.
On the flanks, Rob Harley and Ryan Wilson are battle-hardened warriors who will tackle and forage all afternoon.
On paper, if we cast aside the Scottish inferiority complex, there’s little, man for man, to choose between the two sides, so little that, at Scotstoun, one might even make Glasgow narrow favourites. But Allianz Park is different. It’s as unwelcoming to visiting teams as Thomond Park in Limerick or the State Marcel Michelin in Clermont-Ferrand; or indeed as Twickenham, dammit. It will be the Warriors’ finest day if they pull off a win but, alas, the odds are heavily against it.