GLASGOW Warriors were bottom of their Champions Cup pool in their first year under Dave Rennie, quarter-finalists in their second. As the head coach prepares for his third and almost certainly final campaign at the helm, the question is how much further can he take them?
The progress last year was made despite the loss of Finn Russell; any further improvement this year will have to be made minus Stuart Hogg, with the added complication that the full-back is now with Exeter Chiefs, one of the Warriors’ Pool Two rivals. Exeter begin the tournament with a trip to La Rochelle before hosting Glasgow next week, while Rennie’s team start off at lunchtime today (Saturday) with a home game against Sale Sharks.
The early weeks of the PRO14 season were inauspicious for the Warriors as they lost three of their first four matches, but the head coach has been encouraged by the last two results – a 50-0 at home to the Southern Kings and then a 31-7 win at Zebre. “We’ve had a scratchy start in our comp, but last two weeks we’ve been really good,” Rennie said after naming his team for the game against the Sharks. “So we’re building and we’ve got a lot of confidence. It’s nice to be playing the first one at home, but we’re well aware of the threat that Sale bring.”
La Rochelle and Exeter bring just as much of a threat, and while the Chiefs are favourites to win the group, it is arguably the most open of the five. Rennie, whose contract expires at the end of the season and is still expected to take over as Wallabies coach, knows that the most important quality for a team with aspirations of qualifying for the knockout stages – as well as being often the most elusive – is consistency.
“It is tough,” he said. “You have to beat the best 20 teams in Europe. But we’ve worked really hard over the last couple of years. We have a better squad with a lot more depth in it and I think we’ve got a pack now that can compete in Europe. I thought we were really good in Europe last year and I guess we’ve got a pretty good understanding of the game we’re trying to play – obviously we want to attack, but it’s balanced with some smart kicking.
“I think on our day we can knock anyone over. That’s got to be our mind set. I know we’re playing against teams with much bigger budgets and so on, but in the end it’s 15 v 15 on the day. So we’ve prepared well and we’re ready to rip into things.”
Rennie’s squad will have to rip into things without Jonny Gray, who is still on post-World-Cup recovery leave and will also miss next week’s match at Exeter. But while the absence of the lock might be felt keenly, the starting line-up is still a pretty heavy-duty one from Oli Kebble at loosehead to Tommy Seymour at full-back.
The back row looks an especially useful combination, with captain Callum Gibbins returning after last week’s rest to partner Ryan Wilson and Matt Fagerson, while in the centres the coach has gone for what he sees as his best defensive combination – which means no place for Huw Jones. Nick Grigg starts alongside Sam Johnson in the midfield, with Kyle Steyn’s ability to play on the wing as well getting him the nod on the bench.
“It was a really tight decision between Nick and Huw, to be honest, but we’ve gone for the strongest defensive pairing,” Rennie explained. “We’ve got Kyle on the bench because he can obviously cover centre, but he also covers wing for us, so we’ve got more flexibility.
“With the World Cup boys coming back in, we sort of planned about three or four weeks of selection, dictated by form and injury. We’re pretty happy with the team we’ve got together. We’re not too bad off from an injury point of view. It’s a pretty strong side.”
Pretty strong throughout the 23, in fact, with Tim Swinson and Chris Fusaro among the forwards replacements and Ali Price and Pete Horne being the substitute backs along with Steyn. It will be a first outing for Price since he was injured at the World Cup, and although he may make no more than a cameo appearance today, the hope is that in the weeks to come he can begin to challenge George Horne, the in-form scrum-half who Rennie believes is an ideal fit for Glasgow’s general game plan.
“George has played really well for us for the last couple of years, hasn’t he? He had a really strong World Cup and he’s been excellent since he’s been back with us. Clearly he suits the type of game that we play, which is high pace, high skill. It’s important that he gets to the breakdown quickly and allows us to play our type of game.
“But Ali is very similar. Last year they were scrapping it out. We want to get a bit more rugby into Ali but he’s worked hard and he’s on the bench this week.”
Last year Glasgow scrapped it out all the way to the last eight, beating Cardiff and Lyon home and away in a group where they also lost twice to Saracens. The seeding meant that they were drawn against the English club again in the quarter-finals, and a 56-27 defeat at Allianz Park was a sobering reminder of just how far they still had to go before being able to compete consistently with the real powerhouses of the European game.
Sale today will be by far the closest thing the Warriors have had this season to a stern test along Saracens lines. It is a test they will surely have to pass to give themselves a fighting chance of getting out of the pool.