JONNY Gray will lead Glasgow Warriors from the start of a match for the first time in this afternoon’s crucial Guinness Pro12 clash against Connacht at Galway Sportsground.
With three games to go in this season’s league campaign, and only four points separating the top four teams at the start of the weekend, every moment of every remaining match is going to be vital for the Warriors in the battle for a home play-off semi-final – and Townsend says the softly-spoken 21-year-old will revel in the responsibility of captaining the side in a game which they simply cannot afford to lose.
“We’ve got a leadership group of five captains – Al Kellock, Josh Strauss, Henry Pyrgos, Jonny Gray and Chris Fusaro – and we just thought this would be a good opportunity for Jonny to take on the team captain role,” explained Townsend.
“We know we’ve got a huge challenge against Connacht, especially up front, so we thought from that perspective that this was a great opportunity for him to lead by example. And, given the way he has captained the side when taking over the role after substitutions at the end of games, we’re confident he’ll do a good job.
“He’s a quiet personality, but he is as good as any player I have seen in terms of leading by example. He gets involved in the game really well. He calls the line-outs for Glasgow and Scotland, which means he is communicating the half-backs about what sort of ball they are looking for, so he is already in a strong leadership position.
“I remember watching him playing for Scotland in France at the start of the Six Nations after Greig [Laidlaw] had gone off, and he was the one trying to encourage the players to really dig deep and defend at the end.
“He’s still young and he’s still got a lot of developing to do as a player and a leader – but the fundamentals are there already. He’s knowledgeable, he does his prep, he commands respect, and he is very good at getting his point across when he feels the need to do so. Above all he leads by example in the way he plays.”
While Townsend is clearly in no doubt as to Gray’s value to the team, he is less certain about who will take over from Al Kellock on a more permanent basis when the long-serving skipper retires at the end of the season.
“We’re going to be playing a number of games at the start of the campaign without our internationals so we’ll think about it in advance. We’ll definitely have a captain at the start of the season, but it might or might not change later in the campaign,” he said.
“Josh Strauss, Henry Pyrgos, Chris Fusaro, Rob Harley and now Johnny Gray have all captained the side, so there is experience and options there. Plus Mike Blair is coming next year, and he’s captained Scotland. Yes, we’ll miss Al’s leadership, but there are people ready to step up,” he added.
The Warriors have been bolstered for this potentially treacherous expedition to Ireland’s west coast by the return from injury of Stuart Hogg. With Tommy Seymour continuing on the right wing, and Niko Matawalu taking over from DTH van der Merwe on the opposite touchline, the visiting back three is full of pace, cunning and mischief.
In the pack, Euan Murray will make his first appearance in a Warriors shirt since 9 January, while Fraser Brown replaces Dougie Hall at hooker.
“The players had a week off last week, and the extra day we’ve had this week through having a Saturday match has helped because there are a lot of threats that we need to be ready for,” said Townsend.
“They’ve got a really good line-out drive and have scored a lot of tries from that. Pat Lam encourages them to the move the ball, so they pass just about as much as ourselves and Leinster.
“We anticipate it could be wet and windy so we have tailored the way we have gone about our preparation this week accordingly. It does heighten the senses and focuses the mind on what you have to do.”
Warriors v Connacht at Galway Sportsground - today, kick-off 1:05pm
15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Richie Vernon, 12 Peter Horne, 11 Niko Matawalu, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 1 Jerry Yanuyanutawa, 2 Fraser Brown, 3 Ewan Murray, 4 Leone Nakarawa, 5 Jonny Gray (Capt), 6 Rob Harley, 7 Chris Fusaro, 8 Adam Ashe
Subs: Kevin Bryce, Roddy Grant, Jon Welsh, Tim Swinson, Josh Strauss, Duncan Weir, Peter Murchie, Lee Jones