It was on a spring evening in Belfast eight years ago when the Warriors, under the leadership of head coach Gregor Townsend, tore Munster to shreds in the Guinness Pro12 final. Great things were expected to follow and although they reached the final again in 2019 there has been no more silverware coming back to Scotland. That can all change on Friday when Glasgow take on Toulon in Dublin in the EPCR Challenge Cup final with history in their sights. No Scottish side has won one of rugby's European club trophies.
Raised in Dumfries and Galloway, McDowall attended Kirkcudbright Academy and then Merchiston Castle, and supported the Warriors from an early age. “I remember the year they won the final in 2015. I was in my second last year at school,” he said. “I watched the game with a lot of my mates. As a Glasgow fan growing up, that was a pretty special day to see the team finally win it. They had obviously been to semi-finals and finals before, but to finally go and take that next step was special. That Glasgow team wrote their name into history. It’s a massive occasion for us to hopefully do the same next week.”
The win over Munster was a breakthrough moment for Glasgow, who had lost in the final to Leinster the previous year, and in the semi-finals in 2012 and 2013. The progress made under first Sean Lineen and then Townsend had been highly impressive but it was no overnight success story. Glasgow this season are still in the first year of the Franco Smith project but such has been the impact made by the South African coach that instant dividends are a possibility. Toulon are favourites for Friday’s final at the Aviva Stadium. The French side are not the force they were a decade ago when their team of galacticos ruled Europe, but they are still pretty tasty.
At their free-spending peak, club owner Mourad Boudjellal attracted Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana, Juan Martín Hernández, Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman to Stade Mayol and the comic book publisher was rewarded with three successive European Champions Cups and a Top 14 title. They were heady days, and McDowall can’t wait to rub shoulders with one of French rugby’s great clubs. “I was speaking to my Dad about it the other day, watching Toulon growing up, winning Heineken Cups on the bounce with the team they had – Wilkinson, Giteau and those guys. It is a special club and I couldn’t think of anyone you’d rather play in a European final. To go head to head with a club of that kind of heritage will be pretty special.”
Like Glasgow, it’s eight years since Toulon won a major trophy and while the galacticos era may be over, their squad is still sprinkled with stardust, most notably France forwards Charles Ollivon and Jean-Baptiste Gros, Italian veteran Sergio Parisse, Wales stand-off Dan Biggar and South Africa wing Cheslin Kolbe. They can also call upon the formidable experiences of Mathieu Bastareaud, a former nemesis of Scotland’s who is back at the club following time in New York and Lyon. Bastareaud played in all three of Toulon’s Heineken Cup final wins from 2013 to 2015 at outside centre. At 34, he is still a valuable squad player but as a No 8.
“Obviously there are international stars littered across their team – a lot of individual talents who can light up a game,” added McDowall. “Who they play at 10 varies how their game plan runs – they have got Biggar there, a massively experienced international and British & Irish Lion who will probably control the game a bit more and kick a bit more, or Ihaia West, who won a Champions Cup with La Rochelle last year and will probably attack the line a bit more and look to play from a bit deeper. They’re a massively threatening team but one we’re willing to take on.”
Glasgow will go into the game without Tom Jordan, their first-choice stand-off, who is suspended following his red card against Munster last weekend. With no fly-half on the bench, McDowall filled in at 10 for 55 minutes against the Irish side. The centre said he was grateful to his team-mates for their help in guiding him through what was a challenging experience. “Prior to last week, I can’t actually remember the last time I played at 10 in a game,” said the 25-year-old. “It’d have been a while ago certainly as I’ve definitely never played there for Glasgow. But, with the system we run, you’re in and out at 10 a fair bit anyway if you’re first receiver. You’re jumping in and out of there in phase play anyway. The phase play wasn’t new. It was more just trying to get used to the set-piece stuff and the calls, especially being a man down as that kind of limited our options.”
With Domingo Miotti and Duncan Weir available, it is unlikely McDowall will be asked to play stand-off again on Friday and such has been his form at centre this season – nine tries in 18 matches – which has earned him a Scotland call-up, that it would seem strange to select him anywhere other than at 12 or 13. “No one had spoken to me about it yet,” added McDowall. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I’m asked to play there, or any role in the final, I’ll happily do it.”