It feels like yesterday but almost six years have passed since Jon Humphreys was dragged out of the Ospreys and into Scottish rugby by his former club boss Scott Johnson. Now the Glasgow forwards coach is to return to his homeland at the end of the season to become Wales’ forwards coach. His new boss Wayne Pivac actually approached him back in September and, Humphreys says, he was unsure about Dave Rennie’s plans at the time, although the Warriors head coach has since signed on for another season.
It is instructive to see ourselves through the eyes of others, as Robbie Burns almost said, and when Humphreys first announced he was moving to Scotland, his Welsh friends thought he was bonkers. He moved north of the Border initially to join the Scotland coaching team and those early years were not easy ones; Humphreys’ first season coinciding with Johnson’s disastrous last one in charge of the national side.
“When I came up about six years ago, going to coach Scotland wasn’t seen as a great thing,” Humphreys recalls. “Some of my friends asked, ‘what are you doing?’
“I didn’t have any experience of international rugby. We started off and we were hammered by Ireland in the first game [and Wales in the last].
“It was tough. In the middle of that Six Nations we knew that we had to make changes and it wasn’t as if we could pick people who were better. We had to pick people who were potentially better and then take the stick. A few people had been there for a long time.
“That was hard because we had to take a lot of stick for that and now you see these [same] boys with 40 or 30 caps and Scotland being in a good place in terms of the depth they have got.”
Humphreys’ main takeaway from Scotland will be the harmonious relationship between Murrayfield and what he insists on calling the Scottish “regions”. Wales is a another country and the little hooker says that his first task upon returning home is to build bridges between the WRU and their four professional teams.
The biggest difference between the two nations, Humphreys argues, remains the disparity in resources, with Wales having a host of talented players emerging every year compared to the trickle in Scotland. Matters are improving north of the Border but the actual numbers remain far apart.
Right now the Glasgow forwards coach has more pressing matters to attend to. Notably his team’s appointment with the Cardiff Blues in the Champions Cup at Scotstoun this afternoon, an 80 minutes that will go some way to defining the Warriors’ season and, by extension, Humphreys’ influence upon them.
It is impossible not to have a little sympathy with him because being Glasgow forwards coach is a little like playing the triangle in the Berlin Philharmonic; the stars of the show are all elsewhere, Stuart Hogg on first violin.
Moreover, Rennie’s all-court, attacking rugby has come unstuck in recent weeks and after three defeats in a row – two of them against Edinburgh – Glasgow have copped the usual criticism that is levelled at them. The team has no Plan B to fall back upon when Plan A unravels. Humphreys’ first reaction is to deny the charge but his second reaction is perhaps more revealing.
“We do have a Plan B and it’s about whether we execute that Plan B as well as Plan A,” he argues.
“If you talk about the two Edinburgh games, there were a multitude of opportunities to score tries, a multitude of opportunities. It’s not as if Plan A isn’t working, it’s just that we are not executing.
“Edinburgh defended well but we had five or six cast-iron opportunities to score tries. Two…three interceptions lead to tries when we are in a position to score points. So it’s not as if we don’t have a Plan B but when we execute Plan A we are a difficult team to beat. We believe for us to win silverware we have a way of playing, we have a way of going about our game, and we have to execute that.
“We go to Plan B when we want to keep it tight and we want to go forward and we did that, to a degree, in that [Edinburgh] game to create those opportunities out wide. But if you are not executing and you are turning the ball over 20-plus times, that is going to bite you in the arse.
“What we talked about last year was our turnover stats were huge, especially towards the end of the season, giving the ball away, handling errors, kicking straight out, they are all turnover errors. We have been up to high 20s and it is very, very difficult to come back from that. When we are clinical we are at half that number and we can create pressure and opportunities and we have the firepower to score.”
Glasgow’s finishing power is fearsome but any commitment to developing another aspect to their game still seems a little perfunctory. It is a fine line between arriving at a considered coaching consensus and a less healthy “Glasgow group think” that brooks no dissent from any apostates. Whatever the truth the club’s one appearance to date in the Champions Cup quarter-finals suggests room for improvement.
The Welshman’s argument for better execution is irrefutable but it probably doesn’t give due credit to Edinburgh’s smother defence for helping cause at least some of those Glasgow errors. It is tricky to pick your pass with opposition jerseys flooding your field of vision, as Adam Hastings can confirm.
Part of the problem is a lack of lumpy, athletic ball carriers in the Warriors’ ranks, not helped by injury to Zander Fagerson, although Humphreys sees it more as a part of a virtuous/vicious circle.
“Any team that is coming to come and play us, the first thing they need to do is slow our ball down,” he admits. “Then no matter who you are playing against it is difficult to create opportunities. So for us, it’s all about the carry. When we get our carry right, we get our clean right, we get quick ball, we are very, very difficult to mark.
“If you get slow ball then you get your ball carriers running into brick walls. It’s a knock-on effect. So therefore there are very few people out there who, with slow, static ball, can get you going forward.
“For us, the easy thing to do is to say; ‘this isn’t working, we’ll go to Plan B or Plan C or whatever’. And I think what we understand is that if we do what we do right, then we are difficult to play against.”
When in full flow, Glasgow’s attack is in truth a thing of wonder but you also have to wonder if they have the beef up front to do the heavy lifting that even the best backs need before cutting loose?
Last time out Glasgow imploded at the end of the season; is the current three-match loss a mid-season “hiccup” or a sign of something more fundamental?
“We have all been in these situations. I lost seven games on the bounce with the Ospreys!” says Humphreys. “For me it’s a timing thing. This is what we have to concentrate on, this is what is important to us, this is what makes us tick, keep the confidence and stick together.”
It doesn’t look like the Glasgow Leopards are going to change their spots any time soon.