Saracens set to provide ‘improved’ Glasgow with their toughest test to date

Head coach Dave Rennie believes his team can lay down a marker in their European Heineken Champions Cup opener on Sunday

Adam Hastings "will learn a bit" against Saracens, according to Dave Rennie. Image: © Craig Watson.

GLASGOW were found wanting at the highest level of competition last season, winning just one out of six games in Europe and losing their only PRO14 play-off match. Dave Rennie is confident that his team are a better side then than they were back then, and the coach would certainly be vindicated in that belief if the Warriors were to beat Saracens on Sunday in the Champions Cup.

Indeed, given the strength of the team selected by the English champions, it is perfectly feasible that Glasgow could well play better than they did last season – and yet still lose by a significant margin. Billy Vunipola at No 8 and Owen Farrell at stand-off are just two of the stand-out names in the Saracens line-up, and in the team as a whole there are few if any who would not have a good chance of getting into the Warriors side.

The last time the teams met, in the quarter-final of the same competition two seasons ago, the Glasgow players perhaps focused too much on the quality of the opposition and not enough on their own abilities. This time, to have any chance, they will need to do a lot more than merely focus on negating the opposition’s abilities – they will also have to prove Rennie right in his assertion that they are a more mature outfit now.

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“I think we’ve had to work harder to score, so we’ve been more patient,” the coach said yesterday after naming his team for the Pool Three game. “The ability to recycle ball multi-phase – we’ve scored a lot of tries that have been 12-phase plus.

“And while it’s good to score off one or two phases, at times last year when we came up against better defences and hadn’t scored after three or four phases we were throwing miracle balls to pull a rabbit out of our backside, type of thing. So I think we’ve been more disciplined . . . .

“If it’s not on, we’re carrying, and our ruck’s not a disaster. We try and recycle. Like I said, we’re a fit side, but if you turn the ball over after two phases you don’t get to dictate the pace of the game. We’re keen to make use of our conditioning.”

As expected, Callum Gibbins and Ryan Wilson, the joint captains of the side, return to the back row after being rested last week. DTH van der Merwe is back on the left wing in place of Rory Hughes, Lee Jones continues on the right as Tommy Seymour is unavailable for personal reasons, and Ali Price comes in for George Horne. Fraser Brown returns at hooker, Darcy Rae is at tighthead with new signing Petrus du Plessis on the bench, and Rob Harley comes in at lock for Andrew Davidson.

Peter Horne is among the substitutes along with his brother George, as Rennie continues to show faith in Adam Hastings at stand-off.

“Adam has made massive strides in the last 12 months,” Rennie continued. “His game management has been really strong, he’s obviously been a real handful with the ball in hand and he’s been able to create space for other people. It’s hard to ignore form: he’s kicked at goal very well, he’s punted well and deserves a crack.

“His work rate off the ball is massive. It’s not something everyone can see. His anticipation, if there is an error, to drop back in the midfield, and then work hard to get back in connection with the forwards to be an option in behind them is a real strength. What it means is that you either get better go forward here, or when you release back and find some space. He’s really fit and his work ethic is massive. And you’ll probably see him with the ball in hand a lot.

“He’s confident. He’s far from perfect and he’s going to learn a lot throughout this competition. Obviously playing against Owen Farrell is great. It will be good for him.. He’s going to learn a bit at the weekend.”

Ideally, you want to learn a bit from every game you play. What you do not want is to be taught a lesson by far superior opponents, and Rennie knows that if they are to avoid that, his team will have to tighten up in certain areas of the game.

“We will have to defend better than we have done in recent weeks,” he added. “By which I mean tackle. The key is that we’re going to have to try and slow their ball down. That’s important, to give us a chance to get some line speed and give us a chance to get bodies on bodies.

“If we’re passive and they get in behind us and the big men are charging on to it, it’s hard to slow down. The quality of our tackling is going to be massive for us.”

Glasgow Warriors (v Saracens at Scotstoun, Sunday 3.15pm, live on BT Sport): R Jackson; L Jones, H Jones, A Dunbar, D van der Merwe; A Hastings, A Price; O Kebble, F Brown, D Rae, R Harley, J Gray, R Wilson, C Gibbins, M Fagerson. Subs: G Turner, A Allan, P du Plessis, G Peterson, C Fusaro, G Horne, P Horne, R Hughes.

Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, A Lozowski, B Barrett, S Maitland; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, V Koch, W Skelton, G Kruis, M Itoje, M Rhodes, W Vunipola. Subs: C Tolofua, R Barrington, T Lamositele, N Isiekwe, J Wray, B Spencer, N Tompkins, L Williams.

Referee: M Raynal (France).

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About Stuart Bathgate 1427 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.