DAVE Rennie’s time in Super Rugby may have left him unaccustomed to switching between one competition and another as happens in the European game, but there is nonetheless a feeling of natural progression as Glasgow Warriors get ready for their first game in this year’s Champions Cup.
If the match against the Cheetahs in South Africa was the toughest challenge of the season so far for the Warriors and their new head coach, this evening’s Pool 3 game against Exeter Chiefs cranks the pressure up further still. Rennie’s squad gave more proof of their stamina and growing maturity by winning their sixth PRO14 game in a row last week, and they will need to continue to improve their form against the English champions.
The coach’s desire for continuity between league and club is reflected in his starting line-up, which shows just two changes from the last outing in Bloemfontein. Lee Jones returns on the wing in place of Leonardo Sarto after being rested last week, and Peter Horne is at inside centre, having come on as a replacement in the 29-26 victory over the Cheetahs. Sam Johnson, a starter at centre then, drops to the bench, where the most significant change sees Scott Cummings return as a lock replacement instead of Brian Alainu’uese.
“We’ve played some pretty good sides, but they’re the English champions so it is another new level, I think,” Rennie said. “We know we’re in a tough pool, so starting well is crucial.
“We talked a lot about expectations at the start of our campaign. We are not here to make up the numbers. We know Exeter are an outstanding team, as are Leinster and Montpellier. You have to have a positive mindset. Set high goals and try to achieve them.
“So that’s what we’ve talked about so far in the PRO14, and nothing changes in this comp. It’s exciting. We get to test ourselves against the best in Europe, and Exeter are certainly one of those.”
As the only unbeaten side in a major league in the continent, Glasgow are ‘one of those’ as well, while Leinster and Montpellier, who meet at lunchtime in Dublin in the other Pool 3 game, are capable of being just as formidable. The quartet is so strong that it is entirely plausible that only a couple of points will divide all four sides at the end of the group stage, with such a tight contest making it unlikely that the runners-up will have enough points to qualify for the last eight along with the group winners.
If the Warriors are to emulate last season, then, and get to the quarter-finals, it will only be the toughest of fights. Rennie has made excellent use of his squad so far, getting to know them quickly and bringing out performances from them that have been on a higher level than they managed on all but the odd occasion last season, and, while acknowledging how hard a fight his team face in Europe, he has been encouraged by how the players have responded thus far.
“We made nine changes for Treviso, 10 changes going to the Cheetahs,” he said. “Not so many this week, but what we know is we’re going to have to rotate the squad because it’s a long year and we’ve got a big number of international players.
“This six weeks has been good for us. We’ve played a lot of young fellas in place of our more experienced players because of off-season injuries, but it’s put the squad in a good place and a lot of guys are already engaged with the process because everyone’s put the jersey on. That’s positive from my point of view.”
Not so positive is the news that Rory Hughes will be out of action for four to six months after injuring a shoulder recently, although the good news is that the 24-year-old winger has been operated on successfully. The Warriors have other, more temporary injuries too, but on the whole they have come through the first part of the season relatively unscathed.
They have fairly recent experience of playing against Exeter, having beaten them home and away in the same competition four seasons ago, while substitute Niko Matawalu was a Chiefs player for a season before rejoining the Warriors in the summer. But the English club have improved significantly since those days, and are arguably a year or so ahead of the Warriors in the evolution of their present squad. That does not mean, of course, that they will necessarily get the better of the Scots in a one-off tie, but it surely does mean that, as Rennie implied, an even finer display than the one which saw off the Cheetahs will be required for an away win tonight.
Glasgow Warriors (v Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park, Saturday 14 October, 7.45pm): R Jackson; T Seymour, N Grigg, P Horne, L Jones; F Russell, A Price; J Bhatti, F Brown, Z Fagerson, T Swinson, J Gray, R Wilson, C Gibbins, A Ashe. Substitutes: G Turner, A Allan, D Rae, S Cummings, R Harley, H Pyrgos, S Johnson, N Matawalu.
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman; L Turner, H Slade, I Whitten, O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White; B Moon, J Yeandle, H Williams, M Lees, J Hill, D Armand, J Salvi, S Simmonds. Substitutes: E Taione, C Rimmer, T Francis, O Atkins, T Waldrom, S Townsend, R Gilbert-Hendrickson, J Short.
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