CALLUM GIBBINS, Matt Fagerson and Pete Horne are all going to be missing from the Glasgow Warriors team which will take on Saracens in Saturday afternoon’s European Champions Cup clash at Allianz Park; but Jonny Gray is “hopeful” of returning to the engine-room against one of European rugby’s genuine superpowers.
“We’re consulting specialists at the moment,” said assistant coach Jason O’Halloran, when asked about the ankle injury suffered by Gibbins in the opening minutes of Sunday’s victory over Cardiff Blues. “He’s definitely out this week and, looking at similar injuries, a worst-case scenario could by six to eight weeks. We’re just waiting to hear officially on that.”
Fagerson also picked up an injury (to his shoulder) early in the Blues match, but his outlook seems to be more encouraging. “He’s under review,” explained O’Halloran. “He is definitely not playing this week, but we’re hopeful he’ll be back soon”.
Horne is still recovering from the knee injury which kept him out of the Blues game and O’Halloran stated that he is “hopefully not too far away”. Asked about Gray’s chances of a comeback this week after missing that same match with a shoulder injury, O’Halloran replied: “We’re hopeful Jonny will be available for selection”.
All to play for
Warriors do not necessarily need to win this game to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup for only the second time in the club’s history. In fact, arch rivals Edinburgh could do them a huge favour on Friday night by beating Montpellier, which would mean the men from the west will already be through to the last eight before kicking-off their match. However, if Montpellier win that match then Warriors will need to pick up at least a couple of bonus points against Saracens. And if Warriors are to get a home quarter-final then they must secure a convincing win (regardless of what happens at Murrayfield), either with a bonus-point or by 11 clear match-points whilst preventing Saracens from picking up any sort of bonus-point of their own.
Given just how much of Saracens’ formidable game-plan is built around their ferocity at the breakdown and generally confrontational style, the loss of two key back-row players in Gibbins (the club’s co-captain) and Fagerson is undoubtedly a blow – but O’Halloran insisted that Warriors still have plenty of options in this area, including Matt Smith, who was registered to the European squad in place of Gibbins yesterday [Tuesday] morning.
Smith has played most of his rugby this season for Glasgow Hawks starting seven games in the Tennent’s Premiership, whilst managing only five appearance so far off the bench for Warriors, but O’Halloran says the coaching team has every confidence in the 22-year-old’s ability to provide the sort of abrasive edge required if the team are to achieve a shock win on Saturday.
“He’s a good defender, he comes hard and he loves the physical element of the game,” said the New Zealander. “He’s quick and he’s brave so we’ve got every belief Matt will play well if given the opportunity.
“We see him as a seven [openside flanker] with the ability to play six [blindside]. He has the ability to smack people backwards but is good over the ball as well, so he brings some tools if we want a two-flier type of mentality, which may be an option against Saracens in the latter part of the game.”
“Chris Fusaro has also been excellent through the last two seasons, and we’ve got some versatility with guys like Rob Harley to give us a number of options in how we balance our pack,” O’Halloran added. “Obviously, the physical part of the game is the key criteria around our selection so that’ll become clearer in the next 48 hours.”
Visiting the lion’s den
Warriors were hammered 38-13 – and were lucky not to lose by more – the last time they visited Allianz Park at the quarter-final stage of the 2016-17 Champions Cup, so they are acutely aware of just how big a challenge they face. But they will also draw confidence from the way they fronted-up against the two-time European Champions at Scotstoun earlier this season, matching their opponents physically, but paying a heavy price for a lack of accuracy in the red-zone during a 3-13 loss.
“There were definitely lessons [we can take] out of that game, number one being that you have to be really physical, and I think we did a good job of that,” said O’Halloran. “Despite what people were saying prior to the game, our set-piece held up really well, the scrum was good, and we did enough around maul to keep numbers in.
“The key thing about that game was the six line-breaks we had we didn’t convert into tries. That’s the major thing: people understanding what’s in front of them, what that means in terms of our decision-making, and executing accurately from there.
“Our conversion rate has to be really high in terms of line-breaks – if we make six then we probably need to convert three – because we don’t have the luxury of knowing that we’re going to make 15 against these guys.
“They are outstanding defensively with that ‘wolfpack’ mentality. They bring a massive amount of line-speed and intensity around the tackle area, so you’ve got to be smart in the way you box with them,” he added. “We’ve definitely got to challenge them physically, there’s no getting away from that. A balance in our game and having some smart kicking options is going to be crucial.
“The threat of what Saracens could do if we don’t get it right should have us at our best physically.”