THE eyes of the rugby world are elsewhere at present, and will be for the next six weeks. But, as the PRO14 gets ready to kick off on Friday, the Glasgow Warriors squad are well aware that the forthcoming games are every bit as important as the ones they will play later in the season when their star internationals have returned from Japan.
There are the same points on offer in every match, after all. The same chance to stake a claim for a place in the play-offs. And, for individuals, there is the opportunity to persuade the coach that they perhaps deserve an extended run in the team even when the big guns are back.
The Warriors squad certainly performed with meticulous professionalism the last time their Scotland contingent was absent. During last season’s Six Nations, their record in the league was played five, won five – a run of games that took them ever closer to the Conference title which was eventually theirs.
One of those who performed with distinction in that spell of matches was stand-off Brandon Thomson, and the South African believes that he and the squad are determined to do something similar again over the next month and a half – beginning with Friday night’s match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. “We pride ourselves on that period of the season where we get to run the ship,” the stand-off said. “We always like to do our best for when the boys come back, keep them on the front foot.
“I think we’re approaching it with the same thought [as the Six Nations]. Whoever puts on the jersey is expected to play well. We want to go in, start off with a bang, make it easier for the boys coming back in after the World Cup – they’ll have put in a couple of big shifts.
“As long as we can get off to a good start, aim to win every game . . . Everybody is missing a couple of key players here and there. I think whoever starts the season off with a really good bang will be [in a good position].”
There was a period last season when Thomson’s consistency gave him the edge in selection over Adam Hastings and Pete Horne, and he knows that these weeks offer him a chance to prove himself anew and make the jersey his own. “Ideally that’s what I’d like,” he continued. “I’ll do my best while I’m in the 10 jersey with Adam and Pete doing their job for Scotland at the World Cup. That’s always a challenge between the three of us, who gets to start, so I like to do my best, see how long I can keep it.
“I was pretty happy towards the end of last season – I felt my game improved quite a bit. I’ll really just try to keep working on a couple of things. Just try to vary my game – flattening up, deepening off, smart kicking game. Just try to do my best.”
Having played five times for South Africa Under-20s, Thomson has had a taste of the international arena, something that gives him an insight into how players such as Huw Jones and Matt Fagerson must be feeling right now after being omitted from Gregor Townsend’s final World Cup squad after being in the wider training group of 40. “It’s a massive disappointment – everybody wants to be on the plane to Japan,” he continued.
“But they’ve come back in great spirit. They’ve come back straight into it, giving their best, helping out where they can. They’re really experienced players, a lot of international caps between them, and they’re just picking up the energy.”
Speaking of massive disappointments, Glasgow go into this season with the memory of the Grand Final defeat by Leinster still painfully fresh in their minds. “We did really well in the build-up to the final – the boys were raring to go, and then we just fell short in the final.
“That was a horrible feeling to have. We’re keeping that feeling in the back of our minds. We don’t want to feel like that again.”
As they set out on a journey that they hope will take them to the final again, Glasgow could have hoped for an easier start than a game at the Cheetahs, who improved massively last season and whose domestic branch, the Free State Cheetahs, have just won the Currie Cup. “They’ve had a brilliant season,” Thomson said. “They’ve just come off a Currie Cup victory, so they’ll be in high spirits, ready to take on the Pro14 and try to make a statement this year. So we need to be at our best if we want to compete.
“It’s going to be a challenge going back this early in the season, but the boys are feeling good after pre-season so we’re really excited to be going down there. It will be the start of summer down there at the moment. It will be pretty hot, but this week’s been sunny to say the least. We’ve been training really hard – the lungs have been burning doing training, so we try our best to prepare for what we’ll face down there.”