Twenty years of grief: one season to put it right and enter the annals as the man who got Glasgow Warriors into a European Champions Cup quarter final. Trying to stop him, two sides with a legendary Cup pedigree and the reigning French champions. If Gregor Townsend is to end his club career on a high he’ll have to do it the hard way.
To add to the pressure, if by some miracle he can produce a magical campaign and get his team through to the final, it will be staged at BT Murrayfield. That alone adds an extra layer of incentive – as if one was needed – as they head into the tournament opener against Leicester next week.
“Murrayfield makes the carrot even bigger,” Townsend saidd at the official launch in Dublin yesterday. “We have not even made the quarter finals before, so qualifying for the knock-out stages, at least, is a huge goal for us this year.
“We have to win the close games we did not win last year in Europe. There was a close game against Northampton that did not go our way. We have to be consistently close to our best in our six games. We are up against teams with lots of strengths. We are playing against world-class players when we take on Leicester, Munster and Racing 92.
“Leicester will have a big pack and we have to do things better to stop it having an influence on the game. We must be disciplined and take our opportunities. Close games against top teams in European competition can be won on small things. You get in their 22 and make that right pass or right decision.
“A yellow or red card can change things – we had a yellow card against Bath two years ago, when we just missed out getting to the quarters in the final game, and we got a yellow card against Northampton. Those big moments are when we need to be accurate.”
For all his caution, there is a chance for Glasgow. Rassie Erasmus, the Munster coach, joked at the launch about looking at the pool to spot the weak team and realising with a shock that most people probably thought it was his side. Like Glasgow, Leicester have already lost twice in the league and are a long way from the force that once ruled Europe. Racing seem to be going through the now-traditional French champions’ slump and are currently 11th in the Top14. Glasgow need to respect all of them but don’t need to fear any.
Not that Townsend sees it that way, scoffing at the idea that Munster, who Glasgow play in Limerick in the second round, are an easy touch. “They are sitting above us in the Pro12 and have won the Cup before,” he pointed out.
“They have a strong coaching group. They look very organised, they have a lot of young players coming through. They have a deserved pedigree in Europe.
“Leicester are very similar, a team that thrived in Europe. They are one of the most famous clubs in the world. We can’t wait to go to Welford Road, it is 20,000-plus. I saw them two weeks ago against Bath and they won pretty comfortably and looked pretty good to me. I am sure they will be targeting our games.”
That is what makes European competition different. While two of Glasgow’s games will be a repeat of last season’s disrupted schedule, the other four are all going to be new experiences for this group of players and coaches.
“It is really exciting,” said co-captain Henry Pyrgos. “I have not played at Welford Road and not played at Thomond Park in European games. The stadiums will be full and are iconic rugby venues.
“The difference is that we have got to take every opportunity get. We have had a great squad for the last couple of years. We have played well but were not consistent enough in these games. It is tough to be good for 80 minutes against these top teams.
“We have a tough group, the games are all hard but we want to get through, we want to qualify. We want to be able to play in a quarter final at home in Scotstoun. That would be amazing, a massive drive for us.”