Ulster v Glasgow: Prop shortage no handicap, says Gregor Townsend

GLASGOW return to the final leg of their Heineken Cup campaign in Belfast tonight missing a player but head coach Gregor Townsend is confident that it will not prove to be a handicap.

He was forced to name a squad of just 22 players yesterday for the game with pool leaders Ulster, leaving a space on his bench where a second prop would normally sit. The reason is an injury crisis among front rows at the club, which has shorn him of props Ofa Fainga’anuku, Mike Cusack and George Hunter in the past two weeks. Props Jon Welsh and 
Ed Kalman, who are close to returning from injury, and recent signing German Araoz are not registered for the Heineken Cup.

So, while Ulster welcome back internationalists Rory Best and John Afoa to their front row, European Rugby Cup (ERC) told Glasgow that they could not draft in another prop and pointed out that, should they lose two props to injury in tonight’s penultimate pool game, it could go to uncontested scrums but with the Warriors reduced to 14 men.

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In the past, when a team ran short of props, the scrums became uncontested on safety grounds – rather than allow any player to step in to the front row – but a team was permitted to send on another player to ensure both sides remained at full complement. However, to avoid the potential for a team in Glasgow’s position claiming injury and cynically withdrawing their props in order to defuse any scrum dominance of their opponents, ERC have stated that the final injured prop cannot 
be replaced and the team must continue with 14 men.

“It’s not a problem,” said Townsend. “Everybody goes into the game believing they can play 80 minutes in the starting team. Last week, Gordon Reid came on only for the last two or three minutes of the game and, in the Edinburgh game at home, both props stayed on for 80 minutes.

“We’re a 22-man squad and that’s what the squads used to be like. A year or two ago, this was the squad we’d have been going in with. It’s unusual to get so many injuries in one position – last week, we had just one back injured, Chris Cusiter, but both opensides and five or six of the front row? It’s just the luck you get during a season.”

Preparing to face a near full-strength Ulster at Ravenhill, Townsend is also missing Ruaridh Jackson (ribs), although that re-opens the door to Duncan Weir to begin to press his Six Nations claims, Sean Lamont, Tommy Seymour and Chris Cusiter. Sean’s brother, Rory, is due to play for Dundee on Sunday in the British & Irish Cup, with a view to finally making his return to the Glasgow squad for the last European match, at home to Northampton.

Up front, hookers Finlay Gillies and Fergus Scott, and back rows Ryan Wilson, Angus Macdonald, John Barclay and Chris Fusaro are still out, so Rob Harley continues in the No 7 jersey. Townsend has been delighted with Harley’s form at openside and believes he could be a Six Nations contender there.

“He has just gone about his business as he would anywhere in the back row and has been outstanding,” said Townsend.

There is an inevitable shift in thought among supporters towards Scotland, just three weeks away from the opening RBS Six Nations match at Twickenham and with Scott Johnson naming his first national squad at Murrayfield on Monday. Townsend agreed that players would be desperate for the chance to showcase their talents to Johnson but underlined his mantra that his and the players’ sole focus had to be on Glasgow Warriors.

“This is a shop window for us as well,” he said. “We’ll be mixing up the team this week and next week and, if that means they’re in the shop window for the Six Nations, then that’s great for them as individuals.

“But we’re conscious that we play Ulster again in six weeks’ time and we’ve played them twice already and lost both times.

“They’ve been competitive games, but we need to be more than competitive and we want to go into that game in February with at least one victory from the three games.”

Insisting the players were fully motivated for what is in effect a “dead rubber”, Townsend added: “This is a great game. We’re going into a sell-out stadium, up against one of the best teams in Europe, it’s the first game on Sky over the weekend and we’re on a good run of form.

“You want to measure yourself against the best teams and we know we’ve got that this week and, with Northampton, who are in the top four in England, the following week.”