It will be back to the future tomorrow for Gregor Townsend as the Glasgow coach returns to his old stomping ground, Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens, much changed since he first rocked up there at the birth of professional rugby over 20 years ago. Glasgow need to win this afternoon’s tie if they are to harbour any hopes of a first ever place in the European quarter-finals and they may well need a bonus point into the bargain.
Mark Bennett misses out after injuring his shoulder against Racing last weekend in Paris but the return of Alex Dunbar, who has been plagued by injury since that knee operation back in March, is a boost for both club and country.
With Richie Vernon and Peter Horne also sidelined, Dunbar will form a brand new midfield partnership with Australian Sam Johnson, who is thrown into the deep end of the European pool stages for what will be his very first start in Glasgow colours.
Finn Russell returns to his favoured role at stand-off and winger Lee Jones starts ahead of Taqele Naiyaravoro, who was a little less involved against Racing than his coach might have liked. Sean Lamont fills the other flank.
Up front Sila Puafisi takes the number three shirt from Zander Fagerson’s back after the youngster’s very encouraging game last weekend, Gordon Reid props the opposite side of the scrum while Ryan Wilson, Adam Ashe and Chris Fusaro make up the third row of the scrum as per last time.
Saints have been a little inconsistent this season but they were too good for Glasgow when the teams met in the second round at Scotstoun. A repeat performance from both teams would almost certainly lead to a repeat of Northampton’s win’s that day as Townsend concedes.
“The last two weeks have been better in a lot of areas,” said the Glasgow coach, “but not in the most important area which is scoring more points and looking after ball when we have done a lot of good build up play, so if we do what we have done in the last couple of weeks we are not going to win.”
One area where Glasgow are sure to be tested is the driving maul. Racing played the first half hour of rugby in Glasgow’s style and at their pace too but went nowhere. Once the big French forwards stuffed the ball up their jumpers and kept it tight, everything fell into place. Three of Racing’s four tries were marched over the Glasgow line in a maul.
Defending it has proved a problem, for Scotland as well as Glasgow, so is it a matter of pure size and muscle or is there a technical aspect to stopping the 16-legged armadillo?
“Both,” replies Townsend. “It’s technical to begin with. If you don’t get your roles right, size, weight and muscle will score tries. So you’ve got to get your roles perfectly right at the beginning against the best teams, or there’s an inevitability that they’ll score. They had a number of lineout drives, we did well on a couple, but not very well on a couple.
“It’s been an area we’ve done really well this year. I think going into the first Edinburgh game where they scored a lineout drive against us, we’d gone six games without a lineout drive against us.
“We did live lineout drives three days ago, we did live lineout drives two days ago, so it’s an area we are looking to improve.
“Northampton’s lineout drive is the best around, their scrum and their lineout drive. We defended their lineout drive last time pretty well but we weren’t so good in the scrum. We gave away five penalties and one yellow card. So that is one area we have been really pleased with, the development of the scrum over the last few weeks.
“This is the ultimate test this week because Northampton are a better scrum than Racing.”
Townsend finished up musing about the final game of the pool which has been shifted from a waterlogged Scotstoun to Kilmarnock’s aptly named Rugby Park. The artificial surface ensures that the final game against Racing ’92 will take place as planned but only a win tomorrow afternoon will ensure that it matters to the Glasgow fans.