Gregor Townsend: Pro12 can be twelve of the best

Glasgow's Leone Nakawara is tackled by Harlequins' Matt Hopper in pre'season. Picture: SNS/SRU
Glasgow's Leone Nakawara is tackled by Harlequins' Matt Hopper in pre'season. Picture: SNS/SRU
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THE first game of any new season always brings a lot of excitement with it but there are so many positive aspects attached to the new Guinness Pro12 that anticipation levels are at a higher level than ever before. The Pro12 has always been up there with the English Premiership and the French Top 14 in terms of the quality of players involved but now it feels like our league has taken some other huge strides forward.

Of course, in Guinness, we have a new, major title sponsor and with Sky Sports broadcasting games from our league for the first time, the fledgling Guinness Pro12 will have its profile lifted to a far higher level in England and France, as well as in its constituent countries.

On top of that, there have been changes to the league which mean that there will just be seven sides from the Guinness Pro12 in the new streamlined 20-team European Rugby Champions Cup.

With the four competing countries of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy each only guaranteed one spot and the next three places decided on merit, our league will be even more competitive this season and make for some more compelling sporting drama.

As if all of these factors weren’t enough to add value to the tournament, we at Glasgow host the champions Leinster in a repeat of last season’s Pro12 final, at Scotstoun, in just 48 hours’ time. This presents us with a fantastic opportunity to build on everything we achieved last season.

When I look back at how we finished the last campaign, with our final home game against Munster drawing a sell-out crowd of 10,000 and taking us to our first appearance in the Pro12 final, it has clearly added to the level of anticipation this time around in fans, players and everyone connected with Glasgow Warriors.

We already have over 3,000 season ticket sales, which is a new club record and had almost 4,000 people at our recent friendly with Harlequins. All of that has acted as a hugely positive driver to make sure we come up to the mark in terms of focus, effort and commitment to excellence in every training session and game.

With Sky Sports broadcasting tomorrow’s game live it really adds to the occasion and it’s just a fantastic way for us to kick-off the new campaign.

Last season, we had an excellent game at home against Leinster which we managed to win, 12-6, by delivering one of our best performances of the campaign. There is absolutely no doubt we will have to hit that level again if we want to repeat the success.

But Leinster finished the season playing some excellent rugby against us in the Pro12 final and also against Ulster in their semi-final and we expect them to hit the ground running once again.

Traditionally, the Irish teams do not involve their top internationals in the opening games of the season but the likes of Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Fergus McFadden played against Ulster in a pre-season friendly last weekend, so we expect them to be involved on Saturday.

What Leinster have created, and it’s what we also aspire to create, is that they have a squad of players who are all at a similarly high level, a point reinforced by the fact that, during the international windows last season, they had the best record in our league.

As always with Leinster, we are expecting a very good XV and the same standard of 23 arriving at Scotstoun, on Saturday. What will be important to our chances of success is being able to combat the Leinster method of playing rather than focusing on individual players.

The “Leinster way” is all about creating quick possession. To do that they use footwork and evasion to get behind defenders and get numbers in support to the ball carrier very quickly to produce fast ball and their scrum-halves are always on the move. They are ambitious and always looking for ways to score and it’s a formula that puts even the best defences under pressure.

The challenge for our defence is to keep our shape, continue to be aggressive on every phase, and look to create any opportunities to win the ball back. So it’s vital we turn that strength of theirs into something we can make use of.

In terms of their defence, head coach Matt O’Connor has made a few changes to the way Leinster defended under Joe Schmidt. He has built on the fact that Leinster have always been a very good tackling team, and added a more wide-spacing defensive shape. This allows his players to not just cover more of the field, but also to get off the line quicker.

In the Pro12 final, Leinster showed what a good defensive team they are and we will have to be at our most accurate and hard-working to get behind them on Saturday.

Clearly, leadership is important to any rugby side and it looks likely that we will start the campaign without our captain, Al Kellock, as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery.

Al will still spearhead our leadership group when he returns in a few weeks and I’m sure he will continue to be an inspirational captain for us.

In his absence, we have utilised Josh Strauss, Chris Fusaro and Henry Pyrgos and we will also develop Jonny Gray in leadership terms.

So, the players have worked very hard throughout the summer and improved their performance levels in a number of skill areas

Following on from that, in our two friendlies against Harlequins and London Scottish, we have utilised 34 players and faced two different styles of play that have brought our preparations to a peak.

Right now, with just 48 hours to go until our campaign begins, I have total belief in the squad that they can play at the high level we will require against the obvious challenges that Leinster will pose us this Saturday.

Superb summer of sport headlined by incomparable All Blacks

Away from the Pro12, for me, a big stand-out this wonderful summer of sport was the performance of the All Blacks, in their 51-20 victory over Australia, in the Rugby Championship almost a fortnight ago. I believe that game illustrated exactly what rugby is all about at the highest level.

It was one of those matches that will be used as a reference point about how to play winning rugby in coaching sessions for years to come.

From the props passing to the number nine, to the full-backs clearing out at rucks, it was total rugby, played at an exhilarating pace, for the full 80 minutes. The All Blacks showed that you don’t need to be the biggest side to win at the highest level or to rely on

opposition mistakes. Rather, they aim to play at a high tempo that reacts to spaces and edges in the defence, with all 15 players prepared to support and link-up with the ball carrier. It’s a style of rugby that all Pro12 coaches will be hoping their players can replicate in the upcoming season.