A NEW era for Glasgow Warriors begins in familiar surroundings on Saturday evening when the team visit Connacht in the opening match of the PRO14. It is a first competitive game in charge for head coach Dave Rennie, and a second debut for Ruaridh Jackson, who starts at full-back. But the biggest sign of the changes wrought to the team since the end of last summer is the presence on the wing of Lelia Masaga, who was outstanding in spells in the friendly against the Dragons.
On his day, the 31-year-old New Zealander should be an outstanding performer at this level, and alongside other recruits such as Callum Gibbins could give his new team a cutting edge that they lacked at times last season. Given his recent lack of rugby, however, the question is how well will he last the pace at The Sportsground?
In a sense the same question can be asked of every player at this time of year, and it is only once the action is under way that we find out which teams are overcooked, which ones are undercooked, and which individuals are just too raw to cope with the pressure. But Glasgow’s assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys is confident that the squad are in a good place following their narrow defeat by Northampton and the win against the Dragons, and he believes that Masaga, for one, will be able to make a telling contribution today.
“He’s an infectious guy,” Humphreys said of the 31-year-old winger. “He’s great around the environment. It’s great that he can come in. He’s probably not where he needs to be; I think there’s a lot more to come from him. But he adds a little bit of X factor.
“We think it’s great for him that he starts and we’ll see how he goes from there. He hasn’t played a competitive game for a while: we’ve hopefully got enough on the bench to cover that.”
Italian international Leonardo Sarto provides that cover, while stand-off Adam Hastings and prop Oli Kebble are likely to make their competitive debuts off the bench. Hooker George Turner is the only member of the starting 15 other than Masaga who will record his first official appearance for Glasgow, while at the other extreme Alex Dunbar will play his 100th game. Neither Dunbar nor his fellow Scotland tourist Ali Price took part in the two friendlies, but Humphreys is convinced that the fitness of the centre and the scrum-half will not be an issue.
“They’ve trained extremely well. Those boys who have come back from the summer tour have worked really hard and been involved in a lot of the stuff that we’ve done. A lot of those sessions have been really intense, and the pair of them are really keen to get out there. They don’t want to sit back any more: they want to add to the team and add to the environment.”
Even at this stage of the season, of course, the coaching team have an injury list to contend with. They have known for some time that they will be without some of their front-rank players for this one, with Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour and Fraser Brown and Alex Allan all making their way back to fitness. D’Arcy Rae and Rob Harley are also now sidelined, although both are expected to be available again in the next couple of weeks.
Connacht, who give a debut in the back row to Jarrad Butler, will be coached for the first time in a competitive match by Kieran Keane, who was assistant coach to Dave Rennie at the Chiefs last season. “It’s ironic that we face Dave’s Glasgow side in my first game in charge,” Keane said. “They will be playing an open, expansive style of rugby, as will we.”
The Warriors actually expect Connacht to be a little more structured than they were under former head coach Pat Lam, though Humphreys admitted it was hard to come to any firm conclusion on the basis of a couple of warm-up games. “There’s different people in place with Glasgow, there’s different coaches in place with Connacht. With pre-season games you can’t really tell a lot – everybody’s just hiding what they’re going to do.
“We think they’re not going to be as adventurous as they were in the past; a bit more pragmatic. But in these early-season games you’ve got to concentrate on yourself. You’ve got little footage to go off.”
Glasgow Warriors (v Connacht at The Sportsground, Galway, Saturday 2 September. Kick-off 7.35pm, live on BBC Alba): R Jackson; L Masaga, A Dunbar, S Johnson, L Jones; P Horne, A Price; J Bhatti, G Turner, Z Fagerson, T Swinson, S Cummings, R Wilson, M Smith, A Ashe. Substitutes: J Malcolm, O Kebble, A Nicol, G Peterson, M Fagerson, H Pyrgos, A Hastings, L Sarto.
Connacht: D Leader; C Kelleher, E Griffin, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, J Cannon, E Masterson, J Butler, J Muldoon. Substitutes: S Delahunt, P McCabe, C Carey, S O’Brien, E McKeon, C McKeon, C Ronaldson, T Farrell.