AFTER being also-rans in the initial years of the PRO12, Glasgow and Connacht rose through the ranks to win the title in 2015 and 2016 respectively, sparking a rivalry along the way that has become one of the fiercest in the competition. That was never more evident than in last year’s three back-to-back fixtures, all in Galway, which straddled two seasons, with Connacht winning the last regular-season game and then the semi-final play-off in 2015-16 before the Warriors responded with a thumping 41-5 win on the opening weekend of the 2016-17 campaign.
Twelve months on from the third of those matches and a new-look Glasgow squad in a newly-expanded league will make the same journey to Galway for their first outing in Conference A of the PRO14. Connacht have a different look to them, too, with Pat Lam having moved on, to be replaced as head coach by Kieran Keane, the man who was assistant to Warriors boss Dave Rennie at the Chiefs in New Zealand.
But while the personnel may have changed in the west of Ireland, some things remain constant, principal among them being the intimidating nature of the Sportsground, Connacht’s home venue. The province took a while to get up to speed last time round, but will be determined to get off to a flying start this year, as Alex Dunbar, for one, is well aware.
“It’s a tough place to go and play,” said the Scotland centre, who will make his 100th appearance for Glasgow if named in the team for Saturday’s match. “We had our first game of the season last year and went there and had a good win. We know how big a challenge it is, but it’s one that the boys are looking forward to.”
Despite that fine beginning, Glasgow struggled for consistency last season, failing to make the play-offs for the first time in six years. But Dunbar is convinced that, with a new man at the helm and some new blood to reinvigorate the squad, they have a good chance of getting back to the form which saw them qualify for the knockout stages so regularly.
“We were disappointed with last season – we let ourselves down in a few games. It was tough when the international boys went away, we had a few tough fixtures and didn’t get many points, so we focused on recruitment in the summer and we have some great signings.
“We’re looking forward to getting out there and playing again. It’s mostly the same core group with a few new additions, which will hopefully boost us.
“Dave has come in and brought in a few different things and freshened things up. The boys have taken well to it, and it’s exciting for the season.”
Although still only 27, Dunbar has been part of the Warriors set-up for some time, and has had more than a few injury setbacks to deal with over the seasons. But he is more than deserving of the honour of becoming the team’s latest centurion, and, as he looked forward to that 100th appearance, he also glanced back to his debut.
“It has been a long time coming. This is my eighth year at the club and at times at the start, through injury, I might have thought it wasn’t going to happen, so when it comes I’ll enjoy it.
“My first game was against Ulster at Ravenhill on a wet Friday night in October or November. I played on the wing, which I’d never played on before. I was a bit lighter back then and quickly found out I wasn’t a winger and went back into the centre. We won that. Just.”
Winning again on Saturday, ‘just’ or otherwise, would be the perfect way for Dunbar to celebrate his career landmark.