THE knockout stages in Europe have crept up on Glasgow Warriors early this season. After back-to-back defeats to Toulouse, Gregor Townsend’s troops cannot afford another slip-up against Montpellier at Scotstoun this afternoon or there will be another “what if” Champions Cup campaign.
Their precarious position is of their own making. Glasgow won in Montpellier on the second weekend thanks to a perfect five from five from the boot of Finn Russell. The same man missed two very kickable penalties against Toulouse at Scotstoun – Stuart Hogg also fluffed a long-range effort – when Glasgow dominated both territory and possession and probably deserved to win. The Warriors finished with three from six off the tee, Toulouse four from five.
Europe is all about fine margins and, despite beating Montpellier in France, Glasgow won’t take anything for granted today because the opposition are under new management, with 2007 World Cup winner Jake White the caretaker coach. In his first game in charge, Montpellier shrugged off some horrible form to record a win against the reigning European and French Champions Toulon… and then came back down to earth by finishing second to Oyonnax, the Top 14’s answer to Connacht.
The complexities of qualification for the knockout stage require a machine designed by Alan Turing (and built by Heath Robinson) to work out the various permutations but, listening to Glasgow – players and coaches alike – they reckon they will need nine points from the last two games.
Presuming they get the twin wins, it is not obvious where that added bonus point is coming from. In three matches against French opposition this season, Glasgow have managed one try, and it required a forward pass. Finding four won’t be easy, even with Montpellier fielding an experimental XV today.
Glasgow full-back Peter Murchie said: “The weather plays a big part and we’ve seen around these couple of months that the weather deteriorates and you have to play more territory.
“Look at the scores all around Europe and there seem to be low scoring games everywhere. It’s natural that the tries do seem to dry up. The good thing was that we managed to get three at the weekend [against Scarlets] and probably left another one or two out there, so we created five opportunities. We just want to pay with tempo and, if we play with tempo, then we can score tries.
“The conditions do play a part in games. If it is howling down with rain and the wind is blowing… you can still play a bit of rugby and I think we showed that on Friday.
“Going back to the weather, we have learned that you need to play a territory-based game sometimes and, at times, we have overplayed it a little bit, when we have played in our own half, in our own 22 and put ourselves under a bit of pressure. At times you can kick down there and teams kick it back to you and you can go from there. There are different ways to skin a cat.”
Murchie is Glasgow’s Mr Dependable. Not as dangerous with ball in hand as his friend and rival Stuart Hogg, perhaps, but less likely to make a pratfall in the shadow of his own posts. His selection is a vote of confidence from his coach because Townsend could have handed the No.15 shirt to Sean Maitland. Instead, the Kiwi starts on the bench.
If his side have failed to match the consistency of their full-back, Murchie insists that the shock loss of the 1872 Cup to Edinburgh over Christmas and New Year is firmly behind them. “Good teams bounce back quickly from disappointments and we showed that,” he said. And, while you might not risk your mortgage money on them progressing to the quarter-finals, at least Glasgow still have a live interest in Europe after the holiday season, which hasn’t always been the case in recent years.
Murchie added: “They have normally been dead rubbers by this stage of the season so it’s good that we’re still in the tournament. They are still big games even when you are out, you still want to show what you can do but it’s that little more knowing that you can actually progress so we have everything to play for and we are highly motivated.
“It’s great. I don’t think it’s pressure, that’s exciting. Obviously if you are out of the competition it’s not great but we are doing well in the Pro12, we’re second, and we’re still in with a shout in Europe. That’s not added pressure, its just exciting.”
Exciting wasn’t a word used much when Glasgow ground out a win in Montpellier last October. They showed admirable discipline but played a game that is almost entirely alien to them – kicking long, pressing hard and squeezing mistakes from the opposition to give Russell those five penalties. With sun forecast this afternoon and the gales easing, Glasgow have the opportunity to go back to what they do best, attacking with the ball in hand and playing with pace.
“We are confident that we can play different types of games,” added Murchie. “We can play with the ball in hand, we are very comfortable with the ball in hand from forwards to backs but we want to play at a quick tempo. We can play quick tempo playing a different style of rugby, too. At times you need to turn the opposition and play territory but, when we get into their twenty-two we can still play with tempo.”
With four wins out of four, Toulouse are favourites to top the group but Bath are greatly improved and will fancy taking their scalp in France today. It’s been done before as Glasgow can testify.
If they do triumph and if Glasgow can get any sort of win this afternoon, there would be an intriguing three-way contest for the top spot – and automatic qualification – in Pool 4.
Montpellier were clearly frustrated in the first match against Glasgow and Townsend was asked if, perhaps, the club were typically French in that their heads go down if things don’t go their way.
“Most of the players are not French,” was the response and he’s right. A quick look at Montpellier’s marquee names reveals a United Nations: Rene Ranger and Anthony Tuitavake [Kiwis], Timoci Nagusa, pictured left, and Samisoni Viriviri [Fijians], Wynland Olivier [South African] and, finally, a Frenchman in Benjamin Fall. Of that list only Olivier starts today but, if that suggests that the French club is focused elsewhere, Townsend isn’t buying it.
“Montpellier, over the last few years, have been one of the best French teams and they have one of the biggest budgets so they’ll be hoping they can put that together,” said Townsend.
“Whether by [former coach Fabien] Galthie remaining or Jake White continuing what he’s doing now I am sure it will be a matter of time before they get it right.”
Glasgow fans will hope the French giants don’t pick this afternoon to hit the heights.