UNLESS Toulouse self-combust at home to a Bath team with nothing to play for this afternoon [Sunday], Glasgow Warriors will meet Saracens once again at Allianz Park at the end of March in the quarter-finals of this season’s Champions Cup – and head coach Dave Rennie says he would be quite happy with that, despite yesterday’s 38-19 defeat to the English Champions in their final pool match.
The convincing win that the Scottish side needed to finish top of Pool 3 was always a long shot, but it seemed a distinct possibility after they ran in three tries during the first 40 minutes to be well in the hunt at half-time. They then dominated the third quarter but couldn’t convert pressure into points and, ultimately, conceded two late Saracens tries giving the score-line a lopsided perspective which did not really reflect the overall tenor of the match.
“The attitude was great,” said Rennie. “I thought we put them under a hell of a lot of pressure for a big chunk of time but, in the end,you’ve got to turn pressure into points and we didn’t do that after half-time. In the last 15-20 minutes we kicked too much ball away to them, they just kept coming back at us and they hurt us.
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“I thought we played really well in the first 60 minutes,” said Rennie. “And in the 20 minutes after half-time we had a lot of ball, put them under a fair bit of heat and built pressure. But a couple of soft turnovers – one strip and a couple of ruck penalties – gave them field position.
Rennie rejected the suggestion that Warriors ran out of steam towards the end, insisting that he has absolutely no concern about the fitness of his charges.
“We needed to control the ball,” he countered. “Looking at them, they looked pretty tired. Ultimately, they’re a big side so you’ve got to defend well, and we gave up soft points in that first half which was disappointing. We obviously battled a little bit at line-out time, but those are all things we can fix in time.
“With a bit of luck, we’ll have Fraser Brown, George Turner, Zander Fagerson, Callum Gibbins and Matt Fagerson back [by the time the quarter-finals come around] and they bring a fair bit of steel. It’s nice to know we’re still alive and if it’s Saracens we’re coming back to, we’ll give it a good lick, even if we fell short today.
“They are a good side, so you have to get them out of their comfort zone which is what we tried to do. Ali [Price] ran a lot [from scrum-half] early in the game because they’re very good at filling the field and we were able to poke a few holes through there, squeeze them up and play outside them. A lot of that stuff we did really well early, and we looked likely early in the second half too, but we needed to score to get a little bit of scoreboard pressure on.
“When you look back, there are a couple of key moments where we’ve turned something over and it’s cost us 90 metres, they go down the other end of the field and make us pay. They’ve got big men and if you keep giving them the ball back they’re going to hurt you.”
Warriors’ chances in this match were not helped by a spate of shoulder injuries, to second-row Jonny Gray, captain and number eight Ryan Wilson and hooker Grant Stewart – but Rennie indicated that he is not overly concerned about that.
“Jonny’s shoulder just got really weak halfway through the first half and he gutsed it out to half-time,” explained the coach. “Ryan was a shoulder as well, he took a knock late in the first half and stiffened up over half-time. Grant had an issue with his AC last weekend so again he was gutsing through it. Hopefully they’re not too bad – they’re going into camp with Scotland so hopefully they’ll be fine.”
With his two international hookers – Brown and Turner – out injured at the moment, the situation with Stewart will be monitored closely ahead of taking on Ospreys at home in the Guinness PRO14 next Friday night. If he is out, Kevin Bryce would presumably make his first start since rejoining the club in the summer (following his ill-fated move to Edinburgh where he tried to covert to tight-had prop), while academy prospect Robbie Smith would get his first taste of pro rugby off the bench.
“Hopefully Grant won’t be too bad and will be available next week. We’re obviously a little bit thin, but we’re not using that as an excuse,” concluded Rennie.