This afternoon’s match against the Scarlets may be a crucial battle for play-off places but Gregor Townsend knew that he would be forced to deal with rumours that had him lined up as Conor O’Shea’s replacement at Harlequins and he duly kicked them into touch them with a wry smile.
“There was a story in the press that is a complete non-story,” said the Glasgow coach from the get go. “I am contracted here next year and that is where I will be staying. People get linked to jobs all around the place but, as you know, I signed a contract for next year and I’m really looking forward to being here next year. I wasn’t approach by them [Harlequins], and will not be talking about this again.”
Or so he wished. After doing the needful, Townsend returned to the business in hand, for which he has picked a powerful pack in an attempt to blast the Scarlets right off their own park.
That won’t be easy, despite a bug that has ripped through the Welsh camp, Scarlets fever perhaps, reportedly laying low as many as 20 players ahead of today’s game.
This is the Welsh region’s last home fixture and, after the disappointment of losing to the Blues at home last weekend, very possibly their last chance to salvage a top-four place.
Skipper Ken Owens said what everyone knows – the Scarlets must win this one or lose out on the play-offs.
The Welsh side field two openside flankers, John Barclay and James Davies, in the hope of winning the battle of the breakdown, whereas Townsend has gone with two traditional sixes, Ryan Wilson and Rob Harley flanking No 8 Josh Strauss in a muscular back row. The coach will have done his homework and there will be a reason for this selection but Townsend was understandably reluctant to show his full hand ahead of kick-off.
“Ryan has played very well for us at openside, and that was the back row for us at the start of the last Pro 12 final [last season] and they played outstandingly well for us that day,” said Townsend.
“There are obviously threats and opportunities with the way the Scarlets have put their back row together with two opensides, so we’ve worked a lot this week on the best way to deal with that and we believe that combination gives us an advantage. It’s the best way to deal with it in terms of personnel but it’s all about decisions on the pitch, so that’s what we’ve been working on this week.
“You need to bring physicality against Scarlets. You look at their back row, at Jake Ball, at Rob Evans in the front row, at hooker Ken Owens, these are physical players.
“So, in terms of our ball-carrying and our support at the breakdown, that’s what we’re looking for from the back row but also the second row. Tim [Swinson] has been playing very well in defence and attack so gets that opportunity to start.”
Drawn in the same European pool, Glasgow have seen more of the Scarlets than usual this season, with the record currently 2-1 in the Warriors’ favour. The Scarlets triumphed 16-10 at Scotstoun on the opening weekend of the season but the Warriors earned back-to-back victories in the Champions Cup including a 43-6 shellacking in Glasgow when the giant Fijian winger Taqele Naiyaravoro helped himself to a hat-trick of tries and could have had five on the day, yet both he and Leone Nakarawa start today’s game on the bench.
“We know Leone and Taqele’s strengths and everyone in the squad has a role to play,” said Townsend by way of explanation. “Leone has been playing really well but it’s one of those positions where we have so much competition. Greg Peterson has been playing really well, Jonny [Gray] has been consistently outstanding in attack, defence and set-piece while Tim [Swinson]’s really come on to a good game with Scotland and now us. It’s a very good situation for me to be in where we can have someone like Leone on the bench.”
In recent weeks Glasgow have finished strongly in the final quarter after they have emptied their bench as the game breaks up and the opposition tires. The tactic worked against the Italian sides but Scarlets, with their backs to the wall, will offer significantly stiffer opposition.
And, if Townsend thought he had answered all the questions about Harlequins, it proved wishful thinking as one more came his way, presumably in the hope that sheer persistence might unlock the coach’s rock-solid defence.
“I am contracted until [the end of] next season,” came the reply.
So were David Denton and Leone Nakarawa!?
“Don’t throw these curve balls in there. I am staying here,” Townsend said with finality.