WINNING games against the best teams on the continent is tough enough when there is a definite, tangible prize to be won. Doing so when the fruits of victory may be non-existent is considerably tougher.
That, however, is the task facing Glasgow Warriors today. They can beat Exeter Chiefs at Scotstoun this afternoon, then follow it up with a win over Sale Sharks next week, but still fail to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. Bonus points in both may well be required, although Dave Rennie insisted yesterday that his team have to go into the match against Exeter simply planning to win, rather than going gung-ho in search of four tries.
“We know we need to win it,” the Glasgow coach said. “We’re not talking about bonus points, because in the end you just need to go out and win and if you can pick up four tries that would be great. If we lose we’re out, if we win we’re in with a slim chance. We’ll see how the other things pan out, but our job is just to get a win this weekend.”
If Glasgow do fail to reach the last eight, much of the blame will rest on their defeat at home by La Rochelle last month, just a week after they had apparently taken their fate into their own hands by beating the same team in France. But for this afternoon at least, the more relevant game will be their 34-18 defeat by the Chiefs at Sandy Park in the second round of Pool Two fixtures. Not for the first time, the Warriors showed that, at the highest level, they lack the kind of ruthless consistency that characterises the real contenders for the European crown.
“We lost the kicking battle in that first 20 minutes of the second half,” Rennie recalled. “Made an error down there and then they scored off it. Then, a number of times when we exited, they would kick one, we would kick back and they would nail us into a corner.
“We didn’t have a great number of options on the field round our kicking game: you have to be able to share the load. They were able to apply a lot of pressure to Adam [Hastings], who did a lot of the kicking, but Glenn Bryce kicks really well and we have done a lot of work round that part of our game to make sure everyone is chipping in round the kicking options. And we’re prepared to play and kick from wide channels when that is on as well.”
Mixing things up
Rennie has given Bryce a big vote of confidence in selecting him at full-back today, preferring him in the position not only to Ruaridh Jackson, but also to Tommy Seymour, who comes back into the team on the right wing. “We like Glenn. I thought he was playing pretty well at the start of the year, but he then picked up a bit of an issue with his knee which kept him out for about a month. By that stage, we had played Tommy there quite a bit.
“He’s not too dissimilar to Hoggy. He’s very quick, has a really good kicking game and is an excellent distributor. So it’s a big game for him. But he does have a point of difference and we’ve got to be able to match Exeter’s kicking game.
“Having Tommy on the wing gives us a good kicking presence there and Kyle [Steyn] also kicks well. Huw [Jones] also has a good kicking game and then we’ve also got George [Horne] and Adam at nine and ten. It’s a good mix, we reckon.
“The conditions look like they might be similar to when we played La Rochelle at home – really windy and really wet. So I imagine there will be a fair bit of kicking in the game.”
Speaking of Stuart Hogg, Rennie warned that, while the temptation for Warriors supporters may be to regard their former full-back as the Chiefs’ pre-eminent danger man, his players cannot afford to adopt the same mindset. “They have so many tricks to concern ourselves with that you can’t just isolate Hoggy. We know a lot about him, he is very dynamic with the ball, but the boys all know what foot he steps off and are all screaming at him when he has the ball.
“He has such a big kicking game and is a great player, isn’t he? We know a lot about him, but we know a lot about all their players.”
In all, Rennie has made 11 personnel changes to his starting line-up, although he might have made two fewer but for injuries to two of the key performers from last week’s league win in Treviso. “We did name Bruce Flockhart in the team at the start of the week, but he picked up an injury and hasn’t recovered in time. Nick [Grigg] was outstanding last week. But, outside of that, we’re really happy with the group and the team we’ve put out.”
After suffering a sickening head knock against Benetton, Grigg has made a speedy recovery but at this point looks likely to sit out next week’s final pool game at Sale. Leone Nakarawa, however, is in line to make his second debut after getting up to speed rapidly since his arrival at Scotstoun last week.
“He’s definitely an option for next week,” Rennie said. “We wanted to make sure – we’ve got a bit of work into him this week and got a bit of clarity into where he was at physically. He had travelled all the way back from Fiji and has a lot to learn.
“I’ve been very impressed with him: he’s picked up all our lineout structure and stuff really quickly and is getting his head around our structure round the track. He has a bit of learning to do, but he’s a smart man and is going well.”
The return of Nakarawa, whenever it occurs, is sure to provide a significant boost to the Warriors’ morale as they approach a crucial stage in their league campaign, with a play-off place still very much in the balance. But whether the Fijian will be back in time to do anything to help his team reach the Champions Cup quarter-finals is another matter altogether.