Warriors use brains to beat brawn of the big rugby bullies

Murrayfield hosts the European Champions Cup final this year but the prospect of the fans cheering on a home team is about as likely as Nicola Sturgeon inviting the Queen to tea... or vice versa.
Dan McFarland reckons his Glasgow pack can front up against European big hitters. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNSDan McFarland reckons his Glasgow pack can front up against European big hitters. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS
Dan McFarland reckons his Glasgow pack can front up against European big hitters. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

It must be a tad galling. Glasgow are in the van of Scottish rugby, they won the Pro12 in 2015 and are regular visitors to the play-offs and yet never once, in a 20-year history have they reached the finals of the European Cup.

If Glasgow, the thinking goes, could get any sort of parity up front then their all-action, high-tempo, offloading game would see them over the line, but the first bit of the equation has proved the sticking point. That may have convinced Gregor Townsend to sign a new forwards coach in the form of Dan McFarland from Connacht.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

McFarland is erudite, intelligent and intense, the thinking man’s rugby coach. If the adoptive Irishman talks like an English public schoolboy it is only because he was one, attending Ampleforth College before a rugby career largely spent in Galway. McFarland has been tasked with making Glasgow’s big men competitive against the very best, but rugby is increasingly about power and money buys the sort of beast that makes the big spenders of Europe – Toulon and Sarries, Racing and Clermont – well nigh unstoppable in every sense of the word.

“Undoubtedly finance has a part in rugby but so does the culture in clubs,” he argues, “coaching, the mindset in the players and the communities that they come from. You don’t have to look too far into the distant past to see that the winner of a certain competition last year would not have been the bookies’ favourite at the beginning of the year and that is equally true of Connacht or of Leicester (football). This isn’t just a question of money, otherwise we’d be working in banking.”

Glasgow face Leicester Tigers on the opening night of the European Cup, the perfect opposition to measure the Warriors’ progress. The Midlands’ club are a typical English premiership side with a big pack of forwards who will test Glasgow’s maul defence and set scrum. They may have added new running dimension to their attack, courtesy of Aaron Mauger, but McFarland is in no doubt that we will see the Tigers revert to type next Friday.

“OK, a new coach comes in and does what he does, but I played against Leicester back in the 1990s and I watched them prior to that,” says McFarland. “The Welford Road crowd loves nothing more than seeing the ball kicked into the 22 and then a try from a driving maul. A clever coach, and they have clever coaches, understand that you don’t take that part of your culture away from your game.

“And they mix it up. They will move the ball but they are certainly clever enough not to forget the legacy of that forward power that they have always had which is terrific.

“Leicester is an example of a club with a genuine legacy. This is not a club that has had a sudden influx of money and bought in disparate parts to make a new culture. They have had a culture in place for a long time and the people coming in either fit in or they don’t and they are gone. I admire that.”

Glasgow are building something of substance themselves and McFarland is good on the work ethic within the Warriors which is something coming from someone raised at Connacht, who for decades had nothing to hang their hat on other than hard yakka.

He is big on discipline, not just the need for players to abide by the laws but the requirement of coaches to coach within them, which is unusual enough to merit a mention. McFarland talks about processes rather than outcomes, while admitting it is a cliché, and he expresses genuine excitement about what the American bruiser Langilangi Haupeakui might offer the club in due course.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But for all the brains brought to bear, Glasgow’s problems remain largely unchanged, finding the brawn to beat the bullies in the European playground.

Without a sling shot, how do you beat the Goliaths of the rugby world?

“You’ve got to go about it in two ways,” he replies. “You have to be able to match them in the areas of the game that they see themselves as strong and then be much better than them in the areas you are strong.

“When you are playing against a team that totally focuses on scrum and driving maul, like Northampton last year, they were so strong at scrum and maul and prided themselves on that and rightly so. If you are on the back foot so much you can’t get the ball or you end up giving penalties away them you are going to struggle.

“But we have some excellent players, we have some really good forwards, we have come a long way since the early part of last year. When we play Leicester on Friday night we will be totally focused on making sure that that part of our game is good.

“Is it going to be easy? No, absolutely not! They are excellent at what they do in that area but we are excellent at what we do in our phase play, in our lineout defence, our defence, we are really good in those areas of the game.

“The tempo we play at most teams find it difficult to play against, doesn’t matter if it’s Racing or Northampton, we just have to make sure we can impose that aspect of our game on the opposition.”