Gregor Townsend has a big promotion to look forward to but will be far from time-serving as he works his notice before taking on the Scotland job next June.
After relinquishing the Guinness Pro12 title last season, the Glasgow Warriors coach is burning to finish his time at Scotstoun on a high and leave the team he has built over the past four years in the best shape possible for successor Dave Rennie.
Asked if he felt he could give the Kiwi a championship to defend in his first season, Townsend replied: “The squad are capable of it. Definitely. They’re capable of going far in Europe as well. But it’s going to be very tough.
“I see this Pro12 being more competitive than the last two, which were already pretty competitive, with four or five teams pushing right to the wire. I can see seven or eight teams this year in the mix. We’ve all got our players from the beginning of the season, so you should see teams really competitive right at the beginning.
“We’ll have to be – we’re playing the best teams right at the beginning. So it will be challenging, but with the group that we have, and their mindset and the effort they put in in training does get its rewards. We’ve seen that in pre-season. So we want to build on that over the next few weeks.”
The Rugby World Cup made for a phoney war feel to the start of last season but it will be all guns blazing from round one this term and there couldn’t be a more appetising opening fixture a week on Saturday afternoon than Glasgow’s, with the Warriors travelling to face champions Connacht in a televised game.
It will be a third straight trip to Galway for Glasgow after they suffered narrow losses in the last regular season match and the play-off semi-final as Pat Lam’s shock troops went on to lift the trophy in thrilling style by beating Leinster at BT Murrayfield.
“It’s massive,” said Townsend at yesterday’s Guinness Pro12 launch in Dublin. “You take on the champions on their home patch, there’s no bigger game than that in a normal season.
“When your last two games have been against the same team on the same ground, and you’ve lost them both, then we’ll be highly motivated to go out with the strongest team that we can and improve on the last time we played them.”
Townsend disagrees with the theory that Connacht’s heroics could lead to a dip this season as the Irish province lack the element of surprise they utilised so brilliantly.
“No, they’ve got a formula that worked for them,” said the Warriors coach. “I’m sure they’ve been doing that in pre-season.
“They always had that aggression, that passion playing at home; what Pat [Lam, pictured above] has done is make them more ambitious and certainly improve their skills. The final was a great example of taking on one of the best defences in Europe and finding gaps and running the ball from your own 22. I think they’ll have the same approach and will be very tough to beat.
“In the first half of the season no one was tipping them to get to the play-offs. They had to build their confidence through their performances, and they should start the season with that confidence.”
With 21 players away at the World Cup and further disruption during the Six Nations, Glasgow’s surge to the play-offs was an impressive achievement. But Townsend accepts that following on from the 2015 win over Munster in the Belfast final, 2015-16 did have its disappointments.
“The biggest disappointment was definitely Edinburgh home and away – sorry, Edinburgh away and away,” said Townsend, referring to the double defeat in the 1872 Cup, with the second leg being moved to BT Murrayfield due to Scotstoun being waterlogged.
“I felt during the World Cup we did really well,” he continued. “We were very competitive – we had to play Leinster and Munster away, and we were leading going into the last five minutes of both games with a couple of 18-year-olds in our team, so that was tremendous. The learning we got will put us in good stead not just this season but the seasons to come.
“I felt we had a dip half-way during the season, so those Edinburgh games were the ones that stood out, but after that we built and built and we had a great run of results during the Six Nations. We were boosted with the international guys coming back after the Six Nations, and the momentum was building to finish the season on a high, but we were unable to achieve that in the semi-final, which was disappointing.”
At the Pro12 season launch a year ago Townsend did actually tip Connacht as title contenders but, with squads at full strength from the off this time around, his crystal ball is slightly fuzzier.
“We’ll know where we are probably after the first four games, because they’re very tough,” he said, before adding with a smile: “We’re playing the three semi-finalists and Cardiff in our first four games, so thank you Pro12.”
“I genuinely mean this – any one of seven or eight teams could win,” he said. “I think Cardiff are one of the best teams just now, one of the fastest improving teams and made some very good signings.
“Edinburgh were second in the league when they beat us in January, and they’ve got some key players back from injury.”