GLASGOW Warriors face their first real crunch game of the season tonight, when they welcome Vern Cotter’s Montpellier to Scotstoun for a Champions Cup clash. Although a pool match, it is essentially a knockout contest, and defeat would reduce the team’s interests for the rest of the season to the PRO14.
With both sides having lost their first two games in Pool 3, Dave Rennie’s team go into this game knowing that one more defeat will finally end their hopes of getting to the quarter-final. Montpellier have at least picked up three bonus points in their two losses, while the Warriors are on zero, but that only means that the Frenchmen may slip through to the last eight even without winning all their remaining games with bonuses. For Glasgow, by contrast, only four five-pointers will be enough.
If this were the PRO14, where they have won all 10 of their games so far, you would bank on them doing it. But Europe has been a significant step up this season, in terms of physicality: their opening loss at Exeter was followed by a home defeat from Leinster, with their opponents in both cases getting the better of the brute-force battle. The Montpellier squad is even bigger again, not just up front but also out wide, so Rennie is ready for another demanding evening.
To an extent the Warriors will try to fight fire with fire. Rennie has selected his biggest wingers; his centre combination of debutant Huw Jones and Sam Johnson is capable of punching holes in opposition midfields; and his back row is also the most combative he could have selected. The coach believes in any case that there is no point in having a strategy purely designed to run round Montpellier: if his team are going to win, he expects they will have to win the physical confrontation as well as having more creative ideas in attack.
“We talked about the need to go through the middle of sides anyway,” Rennie explained after naming his side. “We do not want to be a team that just goes round the outside. We want to challenge in different areas.”
Jones’ first outing for his new team comes 10 months after he initially agreed to join them, and although he has had little time to get up to speed with their playbook, Rennie expects him to be pretty much up to speed. “He’s very familiar with a lot of the guys he’s playing with. He hasn’t played with Sam Johnson, but we’re confident that he’ll adapt.
“A lot of our strikes and structures are not too foreign to what he’s been using at Scotland, although maybe some of the terminology is different. He’s had to get a bit of homework done this week, but we’re confident he can cope with that.”
George Turner, who took a head knock in last week’s win over Cardiff, has recovered and will start at hooker, with James Malcolm on the bench. With Springboks cap Bismarck du Plessis back in the middle of the Montpellier front row, this will be a crucial area of the game, in the loose as well as in the scrum.
Cotter’s emphasis on physical confrontation is reflected in the strengths of the French side, but Rennie, who knows the former Scotland coach from back home in New Zealand, warned that his teams should not be written off as one-dimensional. “He is hugely respected in New Zealand. I coached against him when he was coaching Bay of Plenty: he did a great job there, had a stint at Crusaders, and then moved to Clermont. He’s a tough operator and he’ll be demanding physicality from his team, but he’s an innovative thinker around the game as well.
“Montpellier have some great resources in their midst, so it should be a hell of an occasion. They have a massive team and have a huge back line. They’ll ask questions of us with their ball-carriers.
“Vern will be keen for them to play at the right end of the field as well – they have a high kicking ratio in the competition. We expect them to be really brutal.
“Bismarck du Plessis is back from injury and they have a huge backline. We know a lot about Aaron Cruden, and the two South African boys in midfield are both big men. They have Nemani [Nadolo] on one side of the field and [Benjamin] Fall on the other, and they’re unbelievable athletes.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’ve defended very well, but we will find out a bit more about our boys under the blowtorch tomorrow night.”
There is a good chance that the Warriors will keep their cool, rather than shrivelling up under that ‘blowtorch’, and they should go into the game as favourites to win. But winning with four or more tries is another matter – and if they do succeed, they will then have it all to do again in France in eight days’ time.
Glasgow Warriors (against Montpellier at Scotstoun, Friday 8 December, 7.45pm): R Jackson; L Sarto, H Jones, S Johnson, T Seymour; F Russell, A Price; J Bhatti, G Turner, Z Fagerson, S Cummings, J Gray, R Wilson, C Gibbin, S Vunisa. Substitutes: J Malcolm, A Allan, S Halanukonuka, K McDonald, M Smith, G Horne, P Horne, N Matawalu.
Montpellier: J Mogg; B Fall, F Steyn, J Serfontein, N Nadolo; A Cruden, E Sanga; M Nariashvili, B du Plessis, J Jonker, N van Rensburg, J du Plessis, K Galletier, J Bardy, L Picamoles. Substitutes: R Ruffenach, G Fichten, M Haouas, K Mikautadze, F Ouedraogo, B Paillaugue, Gl N’gandebe, H Immelman.
Referee: M Carley (England).