THINGS are so tight in the Guinness Pro 12 table at the moment that most of the teams in the running for a play-off place or a top six Champions Cup finish will be feeling that there is absolutely no scope for taking their foot off the accelerator between now and the final round of league marches on the 7th May.
Gregor Townsend, however, has always taken pride in marching to his own beat, so instead of looking to build momentum by cracking the whip this coming week, he has taken advantage of an unanticipated piece of fixture scheduling to organise an impromptu midseason break for 35 of his players.
When Glasgow Warrriors’ match at Zebre was postponed in early January, it seemed like the team’s quest to retain the Pro 12 title they lifted for the first time last year might suffer as consequence – because it would mean they would have to fit in an extra game during the league run-in on a weekend while all their rivals would be taking a much needed rest.
However, when it became apparent that this this would line them up to play away matches against Italian opposition twice inside six days, Townsend wasted no time in persuading his paymasters that the financial cost of staying out there would be more than compensated for by the positive impact such a change of scene would have on team morale.
“It was a bonus when we realised that we were playing the Zebre game six days after Treviso which meant we could take a bigger squad out. We don’t have to have an extra two flights. Getting to Parma is quite tough, flying to two different venues, so it’s going to be much easier just flying to Venice,” the coach explained.
“We talked about this the last couple of seasons, [whether] after the Six Nations we can get away for some warm weather training, and now we have been able to do this.”
“We’ll be based in Treviso near Venice. We play Treviso on Saturday. We’re giving the guys Sunday off so they’ll have some time in Venice. On Monday and Tuesday we’re going to spend some time at Treviso where we know the coaches very well. It’ll be great to learn more about Italian rugby and about Zebre. We’ll have our own session at Treviso on the Monday and a joint session with them on the Tuesday; then we’ll move to Verona on the Wednesday, which is halfway between Treviso and Parma; before travelling up to Parma on the Thursday.”
“Ultimately, it’s about getting out there and playing well and training well together. It’ll be like a Test match for us as coaches because you get more time planning and you’re in the hotel speaking to the players. For the players, they get to spend more time together in a nice country.
With 35 players travelling, there is going to be plenty of scope for players to be rested if required, and given that these matches are against the bottom two sides in the league, it would make sense to give some of the players who featured prominently in the Six Nations a couple of days off.
Meanwhile, Ryan Wilson were both on the flight out of Glasgow on Friday afternoon despite the fact that neither was deemed fit to play in Saturday’s game versus Treviso.
However, Townsend insisted that there is no dead weight on this trip.
“We expect everyone who is going to Italy to play in at least one of the games. Ryan picked up an [ankle] injury on Tuesday. He was 50/50 this week and we preferred that he worked hard to be ready to train on Monday. Pat [glut/hamstring] should be good to train fully on Monday as well,” he said.
“But we will certainly have to rest some guys during the two weeks. Tommy Seymour and Alex Dunbar who played Six Nations are not playing this weekend. Potentially there will be someone like Stuart Hogg maybe not playing the following weekend.”
“We could have taken more, such as some our leaders who are injured just now, like Peter Murchie and Chris Fusaro.”
It all sounds very relaxed, but Townsend was quick to stress that there is no danger of the players overindulging in the local hospitality.
“There’ll be none of that! We’ve got some good contacts through Simone Favaro, who knows some people at Prosecco, and with Chris Fusaro’s uncle, who is based out there, but we’ve had to say that the focus is on training and good weather and coming away with two wins,” he said.
The Warriors could really do with emerging from these matches with two bonus point wins, and the league table certainly suggests that this is a realistic target. However, Townsend says that it would be foolish to view either match as a foregone conclusion.
Certainly, the Warriors will not have forgotten how close they came to a major slip up against Treviso at Scotstoun back in November, when ten points in the last ten minutes snatched a 13-6 victory the scarcely deserved.
“It was a wet ball and they played smarter rugby. We couldn’t get the ball off them. There were a lot of pick and goes. We made a couple of mistakes when we had possession close to their line so we didn’t build on some of the good work, but we showed enough character to get the win,” recalled Townsend.
“They are a tough team. They are probably the biggest pack we will play against in the Pro12, and they have shown at home in the last couple of games – when they almost beat Munster and the two games before that they won – that they are playing much better. It will be a tough game and they will be looking forward to playing us at home.”
Glasgow Warriors team to play Benetton Treviso on Saturday 2 April at Stadio Monigo, kick-off 4.30pm (UK time), live on BBC ALBA:
15. Stuart Hogg
14. Taqele Naiyaravoro
13. Mark Bennett
12. Peter Horne
11. Sean Lamont
10. Finn Russell
9. Henry Pyrgos
1. Gordon Reid
2. Fraser Brown
3. Sila Puafisi
4. Tim Swinson
5. Jonny Gray (Captain)
6. Josh Strauss
7. Simone Favaro
8. Adam Ashe
16. James Malcolm
17. Jerry Yanuyanutawa
18. D’arcy Rae
19. Leone Nakarawa
20. Tyrone Holmes
21. Grayson Hart
22. Glenn Bryce
23. Lee Jones
Not available due to injury: Alex Allan (concussion), Mike Blair (concussion), Kevin Bryce (shoulder), Rory Clegg (quad), James Eddie (shoulder), Chris Fusaro (concussion), Ryan Grant (arm), Pat MacArthur (glut / hamstring), Peter Murchie (concussion), Fergus Scott (shoulder), Richie Vernon (shoulder) and Ryan Wilson (ankle).