SEASON after season for a couple of decades now we have asked the same question of Glasgow and Edinburgh: do they have what it takes to fight on two fronts? And season after season the answer has been no.
In 2012, for example, Edinburgh reached the semi-finals of the Champions Cup but finished 11th in the PRO12. In 2015, Glasgow won the PRO12 but failed to get out of their pool in Europe.
This season things are different. True, the Warriors have won nothing yet, but they are already through to the final of the Challenge Cup and have a URC quarter-final at home to Munster on Saturday. Even if they end up winning neither trophy, they have clearly made substantial progress when it comes to being able to compete successfully in both tournaments at the same time.
Much of the credit for that, according to Matt Fagerson, must go to Franco Smith’s policy of squad rotation. The received wisdom is that every team has a recognised first-choice 15, and that every coach needs to know what his best selection is. But since taking over at Scotstoun last summer, Smith has stood that wisdom on its head by insisting on developing more viable candidates for each position, and not letting any player take his place for granted.
When Glasgow visited Bath in the Challenge Cup in December, for example, the South African picked what looked very much like a second string. But he insisted it was the right team to win that particular game, and he was proven right, as a relatively inexperienced group rose to the occasion.
Five months on, the Warriors have hardly lost a game since, and after winning their Challenge Cup semi-final against Scarlets last weekend are now at home to Munster on Saturday in the URC quarter-finals.
“The rotation is great for the players,” back-row forward Fagerson said. “It breeds great competition in training. Everyone is chomping at the bit, everyone wants to play, and Franco has got trust throughout the whole squad.
“It keeps everyone on their toes. And when people do get their opportunity, that’s when they take it with both hands.”
Just as importantly, the players who are omitted from the matchday squad – the so-called non-23 – also have a crucial role to play in the build-up to each game.
“Our non-23 have been huge for the last couple of months, really bringing it on a Tuesday and Thursday,” Fagerson added. “And that’s what you want going into knockout rugby.”
In addition to keeping his players on their toes when it comes to selection, Smith has encouraged them to develop a certain versatility, and to be able to slot in out of position if needs must. Given his preference for a six-two split on the bench between forwards and backs, that can on occasion mean someone who is normally in the pack finds himself alongside the higher-numbered jerseys – as was the case with Fagerson when he came off the bench during the recent game against Connacht and slotted in at centre.
“He’s massive on his fitness,” the Scotland international continued. “He’s drilled that into us from pre-season. We do a lot of skill stuff here as well with the tight forwards. He’s happy with anyone playing on the ball. I wouldn’t quite put one of the tight five in the backs, but I’m sure if it came down to it he wouldn’t have a problem.
“We know that with a 6-2 split if we do get injuries in the backs then we’ve got people who can slot in there. I enjoyed [playing at centre]: whatever I can do for the team. It’s good to know that we’ve got that cover.
“My last year at school I played a lot at 12, so I’ve got a little bit of experience there. Hopefully Franco doesn’t start trying to pick me as a 12 usually, but I have had a couple of games there.”
Munster have been one of the Warriors’ closest rivals for some time now, going back at least to the 2015 PRO12 final in which the Scottish side came out on top. When it comes to Saturday at Scotstoun, however, Fagerson believes it is best to ignore what has gone before.
“I think you’ve got to park it. A lot of the rivalry was years gone by. It’s a huge occasion, I love playing against Munster and I’m sure the boys do as well.
“I don’t feel personally there’s any bad blood. It’s a very physical game always, and those are the sort of games I look forward to the most. I think this weekend is going to be no different.”
Glasgow might well hope it is going to be no different from the recent game against the teams in Limerick, when they won 38-26 after more or less having the game wrapped up by half-time. But in the few short weeks since that match, Munster have completed their regular season with a couple of very impressive performances.
“They went to South Africa and came back with a win [against the Stormers] and a draw against a star-studded Sharks team,” Fagerson said. “Their tails will be up at the minute. I thought some of their contact work in the forwards was brilliant when they played the Sharks. Obviously after the result last time at Thomond Park they’ll be wanting to come for a better result here.”
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