Glasgow Warriors coach Dave Rennie believes his side are peaking at the right time ahead of tonight’s Guinness Pro14 semi-final showdown against Ulster at Scotstoun.
What lies in wait is arguably the biggest moment in professional Scottish club rugby since the game went open in 1995. The Pro12 triumph in Belfast four years ago was historic but for Glasgow to be in next Saturday’s final at Celtic Park would be a landmark moment and Rennie is fully aware of the significance that hangs over tonight’s match.
Niko Matawalu’s knee injury has not cleared up but DTH Van der Merwe, a hero of that 2015 Pro12 victory, is fit and Glasgow have named a strong line-up for this evening’s showdown.
“We’ve got a number of guys back, which is good. We’re not missing too many from a backs perspective and we’ve got a good side on the field. We’re more than happy,” said Rennie, who also brings back his co-captain Callum Gibbins. Ryan Wilson is on the bench, with Matt Fagerson taking the No 8 jersey.
The repeat of last year’s three-week gap between the end of the regular season and a home semi-final has been discussed ad nauseam but this Glasgow side are clearly a different animal from the one that visibly went off the boil towards the end of the last campaign, which ended with a home spanking by the Scarlets.
“It’s probably not easy to pinpoint,” said Rennie of the change from 12 months ago. “We’ve added a little bit of firepower, but I think we’ve just had an extra year together, we’re a little bit older. We’ve got a lot of key players in form. It’s a very happy group, and we’ve got a group of guys who aren’t playing this week who have had a role in helping us prepare for this game. We’ve been having fun and working hard and looking forward to the challenge tomorrow night.”
Glasgow produced a storming finish to top Conference A this season and Rennie was unequivocal when asked if he felt there was a different mood from last year.
“Oh, absolutely,” said the Kiwi. “We were confident that we would perform well against Scarlets last year, but we didn’t play well, for a number of reasons, perhaps. We’re in a far better place now, I think, and we want to show that tomorrow night.”
The coach remains wary of the threats Ulster pose, though. “They’ve had a really good season. They were quarter-finalists in Europe where they could easily have slipped past [Leinster]. They probably didn’t play very well against us here last time [a 30-7 loss], but then they had really good performances against Edinburgh away and then Leinster to secure second spot in their pool.
“So we’re well aware of their threats. Rory Best and Iain Henderson are in this time, and we’re anticipating it will be a real arm-wrestle. When you get to this stage of the year, it’s just full on for the 80, isn’t it?”
Rennie feels that the way his side have responded to the 56-27 hiding they received in the European quarter-finals has provided an impetus to the team finishing the season in much better nick than they did last.
“The disappointment against Saracens has been well documented, but outside of that performance over the last two or three months we’ve gone really well,” said Rennie. “I’ve always said that you want to be playing your best footie at the time when it counts the most.
“We play a lot of rugby without our international boys, so there’s a big chunk of men who have done a great job for us in a lot of games during the international windows to put in this position. As a squad I think we’re in a good place, and the pressure is on to still be around next week. We’re confident, but we know we have to play well.”
Scotland centre Huw Jones re-appears on the bench and may get an opportunity to prove he is back to his best leading up to the World Cup.
“We brought him back in for Leinster. He was probably a week early,” explained Rennie. “He’s done a lot of work conditioning-wise and is in good shape. A player of his ability off the bench, we think will be really important. He’s worked hard.”
Like the majority of the 10,000 at Scotstoun, Rennie is hoping that tonight is not the last act in Scotland for the country’s brightest rugby star as Stuart Hogg takes to the pitch determined to get to that Celtic Park final the Warriors crave.
“He’s been fantastic. We’ve seen the best of him in the last few weeks, haven’t we?” said Rennie. “We want to get a lot of ball in his hands, even at first receiver on the short side – he’s done that really well in recent weeks. We know he’s got a fantastic kicking game and that’s been important. He’s a real spark, isn’t he?
“He’s been good. He probably didn’t play an enormous amount of footie for us in my first 18 months here, but he’s just really excited he’s been able to string a lot of games together. He’s playing well, which augurs well for Scotland going into a World Cup.”
As for Rob Harley’s selection at blindiside with Wilson on the bench, Rennie said: “It is a reflection of how well Rob Harley has played. We’ve just got to find a spot for him. He played a lot at lock earlier in the season and has played a lot at six when we have had injuries. He has been outstanding.”