The full extent of the task facing Glasgow against Saracens at Scotstoun tomorrow came sharply into focus with the release of team sheets yesterday. Adam Hastings was Glasgow’s player of the month for September but even the in-form stand-off comes a poor second, at least on paper, to his illustrious opposite number, Owen Farrell.
Dave Rennie has shown faith in selecting the 22-year-old Hastings in his first European Champions Cup match ahead of the more experienced Peter Horne but the little Fifer has been playing like he put his boots on the wrong feet so far this season and it was an easy decision in the end.
“He’s made massive strides in the last 12 months,” said Glasgow coach Rennie about Hastings.
“His game management has been really strong, he’s obviously been a real handful with the ball in hand and he’s been able to create space for other people. It’s hard to ignore form. He’s kicked at goal very well, he’s punted well and deserves a crack.
“Obviously playing against Owen Farrell is great, one of the best teams in the world. It will be good for him. He is going to learn a bit at the weekend.”
The two teams sheets illustrate the opposing philosophies in each respective camp and, perhaps, the lack of depth across the Glasgow squad due to the absence of key players like Tim Swinson, Zander Fagerson, Stuart Hogg and Tommny Seymour, who only returned to training yesterday following a family bereavement.
Rob Harley, a flanker by trade and training, is again pushed into the second row to partner Jonny Gray. Meanwhile, Saracens have shuffled the peerless Majo Itoje, a lock for most of his life, into the back row to make room for the formidable pairing of one-time Wallaby Will Skelton and English lock George Kruis in the back row.
Saracens have selected a massive, powerful pack and they look intent of bullying Glasgow into submission. D’Arcy Rae is only there because of an injury to Fagerson’s ankle but if the tighthead can keep Mako Vunipola under wraps he will become a Scotstoun favourite overnight.
“We will have to defend well,” Rennie said, stating the obvious. “Our lineout has been going well. Our defensive lineout has been going well too. The way to nullify them is to stop them at source obviously. It’s easier said than done perhaps.
“We will have to defend better than we have done in recent weeks, by which I mean tackle. But we have a side on the field that will chop [tackle] them and the key is that we are going to have to try and slow their ball down. That is important to give us a chance to get some line speed and give us a chance to get bodies on bodies.
“If we are passive and they get in behind us and the big men are charging on to it it’s hard to slow down. The quality of our tackling is going to be massive for us.”
It looks like a miss-match on paper but this is Glasgow’s opening bout in the Heineken Cup and they cannot afford to lose. They are playing at home in front of a full house and the Warriors pack a few weapons of their own.
The midfield of Hastings, Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones is beginning to click nicely with the latter finally finding his best form in a Glasgow shirt. While Saracens inside centre Brad Barritt is the personification of the mythical immovable object no one says the same about Sarries outside centre Alex Lozowski. And while full-back Alex Goode is a canny ball player he is not the quickest thing on two legs.
Moreover, Rennie insisted his side had improved from last year’s model which managed just one win from six starts throughout their European campaign.
“At times last year when we came up against better defences and hadn’t scored after three or four phases we were throwing miracle balls to pull a rabbit out of our backside. So I think we’ve been more disciplined. We’re a fit side, but if you turn the ball over after two phases you don’t get to dictate the pace of the game. We’re keen to make the most of our conditioning.”
Glasgow will undoubtedly attempt to run the opposition off the park but how to stop Farrell who remains the heartbeat of this Saracens side?
“You stop him at source, deny him ball,” replied the Kiwi, “that would be the easiest way, wouldn’t it? It’s all the same sort of stuff, to be honest. He’s going to be a real handful if he has a lot of front-foot ball. He’s really good at playing the ball right on the line and they do a lot of skinny, back balls – he throws a lot of inside balls and likes to play right on top of the gain line.
“We can’t afford to give him time and space. It’s a big part of the game for us, but we know what we need to do. If we’re good enough to do it, that’s the challenge.”
That is, in truth, just one of the many challenges facing Glasgow tomorrow.