IT would be fair to say that Dave Rennie has not always been Huw Jones’s greatest fan. The Glasgow Warriors head coach is big on virtues such as solidity and dependability, and there are times when such qualities have been painfully absent from the outside centre’s armoury.
When Jones has fallen out of favour, most recently in the Champions Cup games against Sale and Exeter, Nick Grigg has been the beneficiary. When the timing is right, Griggs’s chop tackles can be things of brutal beauty, and although not as clinically incisive in attack as Jones, he makes good breaks and runs intelligent support lines.
Once denied a place in the starting line-up, Jones can suffer because of a lack of versatility. Kyle Steyn can cover his position of outside centre but is also a back-up on the wings, so he has been a replacement back over the past fortnight.
Yet, while there is sound and understandable reasoning behind Rennie’s selections, it is still curious that Jones should be seen as something close to an unaffordable luxury. He more than anyone else – at least since Finn Russell left – epitomises the buccaneering spirit that many of us see as the Warriors at their best: the attitude that, if they commit a howler and concede a try, well, give them a couple of minutes and they’ll go down the other end and score one of their own.
Granted, the ideal is that you score brilliant tries without first conceding daft ones, and Rennie’s hope, now that he has restored Jones to the team for tonight’s PRO14 match against Leinster, appears to be that he can get the centre to do exactly that: be devastating in attack without being so deficient in defence.
“Huw’s well aware of the importance around his defensive game and the stretch he needs to make,” Rennie said after announcing his team for the match. “He’s worked really hard on that. He did a lot of tackling during the week and he’s going really well. We want to see that consistently in game time.
“We’re confident that he’s got a better understanding of what’s required and he’s putting it into practice, so he gets his chance tomorrow. I think with ball in hand he’s been excellent. He’s got a reasonably good kicking game as well. And I’m confident that if he starts knocking people round defensively . . . . He tackles fine, it’s just that we’re looking for a bit more dominance.”
It is only a week since reports suggested that Jones was unsettled at Scotstoun and wanted to move back to the Stormers in South Africa. Given he is under contract until 2021, it appeared unlikely that Glasgow and the national team would let him drift away in any case, and yesterday Rennie insisted that the 25-year-old was very much part of his plans in this, his own last season with the team before he takes over as head coach of Australia.
“Absolutely, yeah,” he replied when asked if Jones had a future with the Warriors, at least for as long as he himself remained in office. “I thought Huw’s played pretty well this year. He featured in the first four or five games. We gave Nick Grigg a crack against Sale, he played really well, so we rewarded him with another start last week. But we’re keen to get Huw back into the mix – he’s a real threat with ball in hand and he’s a little bit different to Nick Grigg.”
Leinster would normally be among the most intimidating opponents against whom to make what amounts to a comeback, but the Irish side who visit Scotstoun this evening is essentially a second string as the province prepare for the resumption of Champions Cup action over the following two weekends. Rennie has rested some key players, too, but in addition to Jones he has added firepower to his team with the return of Jonny Gray and Ali Price.
Both are in the starting line-up for the first time since the World Cup, with this being Gray’s first appearance of any kind while Price has made two appearances off the bench. The availability of Gray is particularly welcome given Scott Cummings’ absence with a knee injury.
“With Scott not playing this week, Jonny coming back in is a hell of a replacement,” Rennie added. “He had a very good break. He didn’t play a lot of footy prior to the World Cup, about 40 minutes. So he’s in a good frame of mind. He’s had a good bit of time away and he’s come back in the last couple of weeks and he’s been working hard.
“It’s great to have Jonny here and Ali likewise – he had a disappointing injury at the World Cup, he got operated on and he’s been working hard. He had a couple of cameos off the bench the last couple of weeks and he’s really looking forward to it.”
This will be the first time the sides have met since Leinster won the PRO14 final in May, but a lot has changed that two, and the unfamiliar look of both squads means that this match is unlikely to bear too much resemblance to the one six months ago. Certainly, Glasgow are not treating it as any sort of rematch or quest for revenge.
“We haven’t talked about it all,” Rennie said. “I’m sure it’s firmly in the minds, but both sides are very different from the sides that were on the field that day. The focus has been on us.
“What we know is that they’re a strong team whether they’re at full strength or not. They’re unbeaten this year so that shows the form they’re in.”
Glasgow Warriors (v Leinster at Scotstoun, tonight [Sat] 7.35pm): R Jackson, T Seymour, H Jones, S Johnson, N Matawalu; P Horne, A Price; O Kebble, G Turner, D Rae, T Swinson, J Gray, R Harley, C Fusaro, R Wilson. Subs: G Stewart, A Seiuli, A Nicol, K McDonald, A Ashe, N Frisby, S McDowall, K Steyn.
Leinster: H Keenan; A Byrne, J O’Brien, C O’Brien, C Kelleher; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; P Dooley, J Tracy, M Bent, R Molony, D Toner, J Murphy, W Connors, C Doris. Subs: B Byrne, E Byrne, J Aungier, O Dowling, S Penny, H O’Sullivan, C Frawley, F McFadden.
Referee: C Evans (Wales).