GLASGOW Warriors’ hopes of qualifying for the Champions Cup knockout stages may have been ended by the home loss to Montpellier last week, but Dave Rennie has nevertheless selected a strong team for the return Pool 3 match this afternoon [Saturday] in France.
Of the six changes the head coach has made to his starting line-up from that 22-29 defeat, five see Scottish internationals come back into the side. The most fascinating choice is that of Pete Horne at 10 – something we may see a lot more of next season once Finn Russell, who is on the bench, leaves for Racing 92. Winger Lee Jones and centres Nick Grigg and Alex Dunbar are the other changes in the back division, while up front Kiran McDonald comes in at lock and Fraser Brown returns at hooker. Brown’s recovery from a head knock means that, with Pat MacArthur on the bench, there is no place for Grant Stewart despite his being called up earlier in the week as cover for the suspended George Turner.
The strength of the team is emphasised by the fact that a dozen senior players are on the Warriors’ injury list – and that does not include Huw Jones, who is being rested as a precaution because of a persistent wrist strain. Both the centre and flanker Callum Gibbins will be available for the double-header against Edinburgh either side of Christmas, but there is no such good news for Sam Johnson, who will be out of action for at least 10 weeks after undergoing surgery on a broken jaw. Leonardo Sarto’s injured shoulder is still being assessed.
While the selection of Horne was made with one eye on next year, some of Rennie’s decisions regarding both selection and omission were influenced by those two impending 1872 Cup matches. Still unbeaten in the PRO14, the Warriors will be favourites, but Edinburgh have been playing well in recent weeks and always raise their game against their rivals in any case.
“There’s a few things,” Rennie said when asked to explain his selection. “We were keen to give Peter Horne a crack at 10 in a really big game. It’s a huge game for Montpellier, so it’ll be a real pressure cooker against one of the best sides in Europe and a chance for us to see Pete running the ship in that sort of game.
“And that’s probably looking ahead, not just for the rest of this year, but beyond Finn departing. I’ve mentioned a number of times that I’m a big fan of the way Pete plays. He’s got a really good skill set, he’s a real student of the game and he’s got an ability to challenge and demand of others, so it will be a really good match-up between him and Aaron Cruden.
“We definitely see him as a strong candidate for next year. Obviously Adam Hastings has gone well for us, we’ve got Brandon Thomson in behind them too, so whether we look to bring another 10 in as well we’re not sure at this stage, but it’s a great opportunity for Pete to make a bit of a statement.
“We’re trying to build some continuity and we’ve got a handful of injuries, so we’re limited in options in some positions anyway, even if we did want to rest a couple of guys. We need to show what we’ve learned and try to take that momentum into the 1872 fixtures. We’re normally a week or so ahead, so we’ve already had discussions around Edinburgh.”
As for this game, the squad’s discussions have centred round the need to rectify the failings that cost them last week, and to build on the areas of the game that went well. Rennie is convinced that Glasgow, despite also losing to Exeter and Leinster, are not far off the pace in European competition, and he hopes that his players prove as much today.
“We’re keen to rip into this. I said last week that we weren’t going to send a B team over; I think we have a pretty competitive side on the paddock. It’s a great opportunity for those guys to make a bit of a statement.
“As I said after the [Montpellier] game, we played some pretty good footy in the first 25 minutes and we controlled the game pretty well, I thought. We want to see the ability to build on that.
“In the three games we’ve had in Europe we’ve had our purple patches, but maybe not for long enough. Lack of accuracy really hurt us last weekend, and discipline hurt us as well.
“I thought the scrum was really good and we need to be able to build on that. We need to be able to hang on to the ball for longer periods of time and get a better balance to our attack.
“We probably fell off more tackles last week then we would normally do in two or three weeks. When you do that against quality sides you get hurt. When we had guys in the bin Montpellier were good enough to punish us.”
Turner has since been banned for four weeks after a hearing into his yellow card for an off-the-ball push on Louis Picamoles. At the time Rennie called the act “dumb”, but, while still disinclined to exonerate the hooker, he believes the suspension to have been harsh.
“If you compare it with the results, that’s the questionable thing. The guy had to go in for an assessment, but there was no head injury. This based it on a mid-term entry and that starts at six weeks. We got it down to four.
“Things like that happen on the field. If you bring the judiciary, you’ve got to understand that sometimes the punishments seem harsh and sometimes guys get off lightly. You’ve got to take it – but the key is not to put ourselves in that position.
“He [Turner] regrets the situation. I’m disappointed for him, but he will learn from it. In the end we still love him: he’s been great for us, one of our best players. I’d say he has learned a lesson.”
Glasgow Warriors (v Montpellier at the Altrad Stadium, Saturday 16, kick-off 1pm British time): R Jackson; T Seymour, N Grigg, A Dunbar, L Jones; P Horne, A Price; J Bhatti, F Brown, Z Fagerson, K McDonald, J Gray, R Wilson, M Smith, S Vunisa. Substitutes: P MacArthur, A Allan, S Halanukonuka, S Cummings, C Fusaro, G Horne, F Russell, N Matawalu.
Montpellier: J Mogg; G N’gandebe, F Steyn, J Serfontein, N Nadolo; A Cruden, B Paillaugue; G Fichten, R Ruffenach, J Jonker, N van Rensburg, K Mikautadze, K Galletier, J Bardy, L Picamoles. Substitutes: B du Plessis, M Nariashvili, M Haouas, J Delannoy, F Ouedraogo, E Sanga, H Immelman, T Nagusa.