GOODNESS knows who contructs the Guinness Pro12 fixtures list but whoever is responsible for Glasgow’s opening two games obviously doesn’t hail from the west coast of Scotland.
The Warriors had reigning champions Leinster first up last Saturday and they have Cardiff, many pundits’ pick to be the league’s dark horses, away this afternoon.
Gregor Townsend’s team played the Blues four times last season and, on two of those occasions, they finished on the ugly end of the scoreboard. The Welsh side did the double over Glasgow in the Heineken Cup, effectively ending their interest in Europe in the space of just seven short days with back-to-back wins. Glasgow did beat Cardiff in the league on the plastic pitch at their spiritual home but they needed an 77th-minute try from Mark Bennett to do so. This afternoon will be no walk in the Arms Park as Henry Pyrgos acknowledges.
“We played the Blues in the Heineken Cup last season, they are a strong team and they beat us twice, home and away,” the Glasgow scrum-half concedes. “On the 4G [artificial pitch] down there, it was pretty quick, they like to chuck the ball around and keep their width similar to us so, yeah, I am sure it’s going to be a fast, fast game, pretty tiring.”
Pyrgos is one of Glasgow’s unsung heroes, who goes about his business quietly, efficiently and with the minimum of fuss. As his coach pointed out ahead of this match there is no point the forwards sweating blood to produce fast, front-foot ball unless the scrum-half moves it quickly and accurately to the first receiver. Pyrgos manages these basics better than most, while his kicking from hand turns defence into attack with one lazy swing of his boot.
He is also the designated goalkicker this afternoon, although Finn Russell may step into those boots as and when the stand-off is fit. And, now in his fifth season at Glasgow, Pyrgos is one of the acknowledged leaders in the squad.
It comes naturally to a scrum-half, barking out orders, and Pyrgos has quietly accumulated 12 Scotland caps. His last one, against South Africa in the summer, was probably the stand out Scotland performance on a day when all too many of the visitors were posted missing in action. What the 55-6 defeat in Port Elizabeth proved is that Pyrgos has a neat line in traditional scrum-half breaks because he spent the afternoon ducking and weaving under giant Springbok defenders like a latter-day Sugar Ray Robinson, yet looking more menacing than he does at club level.
“I don’t think differently when I’ve played for Scotland,” insists Pyrgos. “It was a big game and [while] the result was disappointing, I think personally I played quite OK. I am always trying to take opportunities around the ruck, take the space that is there. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s an area of my game I am trying to improve all the time really.”
Pyrgos’ life has been made a little easier by the departure of Chris Cusiter, who started the RaboDirect final for Glasgow in May. With the veteran now at Sale Sharks Pyrgos has a chance to nail down the No.9 jersey as his own but he is not the only one eyeing it up.
Niko Matawalu is the Fijian rival who ensures that there is never a dull moment on the field. Last weekend, trailing Leinster by one point with the clock in the red numbers, Glasgow were awarded a penalty in the shadow of the opposition posts. At least three Glasgow players lunged at him but Matawalu tapped and ran before any of them could stop him, only for him to be called back for not taking the kick on the correct mark. He has a tug-of-war on his hands but Pyrgos is also aiming to make the No.9 shirt his own while insisting that he still has plenty to learn.
“I want to be playing as much as possible. I want the big games. I think everyone does if you speak to Niko, Ali Price, the young guys, they all want that as well,” says the man in possession.
“With Chris going, [we’ve lost] a real experienced guy with over 50 caps for Scotland, and he’s played a lot of games for Glasgow. I learned a huge amount from him and a lot of the guys in the squad would have learned things from him so, in that sense, him leaving has left a little bit of a change there but it’s a good opportunity for me as I’m part of the leadership group here, to become a bit more of a leader and take that role on a bit more.
“I am not sure [it happened] necessarily just because Chris left. I think last year I matured into the [leadership] role a little bit more, just being in the squad a little bit longer. It’s now my fifth year with Glasgow, I think just generally I’ve matured as a person so yeah, I’m in a good place at the moment.
“The way Niko takes opportunities around the ruck, things like that, his running lines, there are definitely things I learn from him and there are things that he does that I know I can’t do. It’s just how it goes. He has a bit of brilliance there that not everyone can do. There are things I learn off him but I’d like to think there are things that he learns off me. I learn off all guys in different positions.”
Today Glasgow must refamiliarise themselves with Cardiff’s plastic pitch. The hosts gain an obvious advantage from playing regularly on the artificial surface, although today’s two teams are similar in style and will both play with pace and with width.
Mark Hammett, the new Blues’ coach, has brought his “two-second rule” to Cardiff whereby an attacking ruck must take no longer than that or the opposition defence will have the chance to regroup. Glasgow are much the same, Townsend insisting that they play at high tempo both with without the ball. Throw in the artificial surface and some dry weather and we should witness a feast of running rugby, with two teams determined to play fast, top of the surface, attack-minded rugby until one wilts.
And, in amongst all the sound and fury, Glasgow’s no-nonsense scrum-half will be going about his business with the cool, calculating head that his team are going to need if they are to remain unbeaten by the close of play.