Glasgow Warriors may be sitting pretty at the top of the Guinness Pro12 going into the final round of regulation matches but a season that started so well for Mark Bennett, with three World Cup tries to his credit, is going downhill fast. After losing his international shirt to Duncan Taylor in the Six Nations, the Glasgow midfielder has now lost out on a starting berth in Glasgow’s run-on XV for today’s key game against Connacht, with a home semi-final on offer for the winner.
Peter Horne is brought into the side at inside centre, with Gregor Townsend taking advantage of Alex Dunbar’s versatility to shuffle him into the 13 channel. Bennett takes his place on the bench and, as Townsend pointed out, will almost certainly play his part in what the coach claimed was one of the most difficult selections he has ever had to make.
“Peter [Horne] has played really well but he has missed out this last couple of games because of injury so he’s got an opportunity to play,” said the Warriors coach. “We know that him and Alex are a very good combination, him and Mark are a very good combination and so are Alex and Mark.
“I think Peter has played really well for us in the past. A couple of things tactically we might want to do and we know also, having Mark on the bench, we’ve got someone there who can come on and do really well in a different way to Peter.”
Perhaps Bennett is the lucky one, certainly compared to Duncan Weir who doesn’t even merit a place on the bench despite contributing 25 points in last weekend’s landslide against Zebre, including ten-from-ten off the tee. Also missing is the giant Fijian winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, whose suspect defence was shown up by Zebre on at least two occasions and hasn’t been risked, especially since against Connacht winger Matt Healy he’d be facing the league’s top try scorer with nine to his name. Instead, veteran Sean Lamont takes his place on the bench, with Lee Jones rewarded for his good form with a start alongside Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg in an exciting back three.
“It shows the level of competition we have that he has not made the 23 this week,” Townsend replied when quizzed about the absence of the giant Fijian. “This was certainly the toughest selection we have had this season, one of the toughest we have ever had to do. Players played so well down at Scarlets, one of our best ever victories, and then players played so well at the weekend [against Zebre] but still don’t get in the starting team or the 23!”
Henry Pyrgos is another notable absentee although his is injury related. The influential scrum-half suffered a neck problem against the Scarlets two weeks ago and, although he attempted to train this week, it obviously wasn’t right. Ali Price gets the start, with Grayson Hart backing him up on the bench, although Townsend hopes to have Pyrgos back for the semi-final in two weeks’ time.
Gordon Reid and Sila Puafisi start either side of hooker Fraser Brown, with skipper Jonny Gray partnering Leone Nakarawa in the second row.
The same backrow which started last season’s final, Ryan Wilson, Rob Harley and Josh Strauss, takes to the field again. The trio is tilted towards defence and their selection, along with Horne’s kicking option at 12, perhaps offers an insight into how Glasgow are approaching this game, especially with Bundee Aki returning from injury to team up with Robbie Henshaw in a Connacht centre pairing that will take some stopping.
“They are two players who are very strong performers for them,” Townsend conceded. “Also Connacht move the ball more than any team in the competition. We’ll see if they do that when it’s wet and there might be more kicking involved but we have to prepare for a very good team who are playing really well especially at home.”
As Townsend alluded to, the forecast is for wet weather and, against the only team in the league which runs the ball more than Glasgow do, it looks like the coach may attempt to rein in his team’s expansive game, use his twin playmakers Finn Russell and Horne to kick for position and rely upon the Warriors’ defence to knock Connacht over when they run the ball out of their own half.
Once Glasgow have high field position they will squeeze points out of the Irishmen any which way they can.
It is a pragmatic call but right now you suspect that Townsend would take any win whatsoever, so long as it means Glasgow play their semi-final at Scotstoun.