THIS is not about Stuart Hogg. As they prepare for their most important game of the season to date, that is surely the message that the Glasgow Warriors team will have to remember – and for two separate reasons.
First of all, Exeter Chiefs have a number of other talented players in their squad. Twenty-two other talented players, to be precise. Concentrating too much on one will give those others too much leeway.
Second, if they are to win this Champions Cup match, Dave Rennie’s team will have to ensure that the game is about themselves and what they do, not about their former team-mate, tempting though it may be to focus on him.
The cameras will linger on the full-back in the warm-up, while Glasgow captain Ryan Wilson and other members of the visiting team will no doubt be keen to exchange a few jocular words with him. Once the match gets started, though, the Warriors will need to focus primarily on their own virtues.
Those virtues were in evidence for much of last week’s 13-7 win over Sale Sharks in the opening Pool Two match, and although the game was far from a vintage display of running rugby, it was probably the Warriors’ most impressive outing of the season so far. There were failings in there too – failings that a full-strength Sale side would have exploited more, and which the Chiefs are almost certain to do should they be repeated at Sandy Park this afternoon. But the step up from some indifferent PRO14 performances was enough to convince Rennie that his team can win the arm wrestle.
“We’ll go down there confident,” the Warriors coach said. “We’ll throw everything at them and we’ve got a game that we think can challenge them. The weather doesn’t look like it’s going to be great – it’s going to be raining and so on. But we showed last week that we’ve got a pack that can compete with the best, so that’s going to be important.
“They’re another level up in regards to set piece, so we’ll have to be really good there. They’re pretty good at building pressure and hanging on to ball for long periods of time. They’ll ask questions of our defence. They’ve got a number of guys who can kick well and kick long, so we’re going to have to win kicking battles and so on.
“They’re a high-quality side. We’re the same – we want to create opportunities, and you’ve got to be clinical and take them. We’re going to have to defend really well and apply pressure to them to try to get them off balance, because they are very confident and very efficient in what they do.
“We know if we can hang on to the ball we can ask questions of their defence. They are very good at filling the field and we’re going to have to shake that defence.”
If Glasgow do shake that defence, they will at least have pinned Hogg back for some of the time, restricting his chances of launching counter-attacks from deep. “We’re going to have to do a good job on Hoggy and limit his opportunities,” Rennie added. “He’s got a really good skill set – his ability to distribute and kick well, and create opportunities for others.
“He’s a good man – we love him. It’s ironic that we end up in the same pool. We know a lot about him and we know we’ll have to be pretty sharp to nullify him.
“We’ve always had aspirations to go as deep in this competition as we can, so we’re desperate to get into the play-off stages and then you’re only a couple of games from playing in the final. This is the hard part – trying to qualify and get out of your group. Exeter is a massive game for us – the winner of this game is in a pretty strong position in the group.”Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 27)
The Chiefs are in the driving seat at present thanks to their bonus-point win at La Rochelle last week, but the Warriors should benefit from having a settled side. Rennie would have named an unchanged 15 for this one but for a shoulder injury which has ruled out Callum Gibbins, meaning Chris Fusaro starts at openside and Tom Gordon comes on to the bench.
“He did his shoulder in the last carry of the game,” Rennie said of Gibbins. “He’s just tweaked it. We initially named him at the start of the week, but progression has been slow. It’s just too big a game to take a risk with. We’re hoping he won’t be far away.”
Today’s game will be Glasgow’s first since it was confirmed that Rennie will leave Scotstoun at the end of the season to become head coach of the Wallabies in succession to Michael Cheika, who resigned after the World Cup. “There’s been speculation for a long time and so it’s good to get it out there and I can focus on Glasgow,” the coach added. “I’ve said from the start that I’d made a commitment here at Glasgow, so it was important to me to see it out. I know there’s situations where other coaches maybe jumped for something better or greener grass, but it was important to me to see this out and Australia understood that.”
The one unanswered question about the move is whether Scotland assistant coach Matt Taylor, an Australian, will join him. Asked about the matter yesterday, New Zealander Rennie suggested that having at least one Aussie on the back-room staff was essential. “We’ve talked about support staff – a number of them come to the end of their contracts along with Michael Cheika. There’s been a full review going on and Scott Johnson” – the Wallabies director of rugby who previously held the same post at the SRU – “has been over there, so I’ve been quizzing him about who is worth keeping and extending and what changes we need to make.
“There’s been talk about coaches coming in and that’s the process we need to go through, so hopefully we’ll make an announcement. It’s important we have a strong Australian flavour in there.”