Gregor Townsend shows off Warriors strategy ahead of tough Treviso battle
Glasgow head coach hopes improved preparation will help overcome international call-ups in PRO12 campaign
The free-scoring Glasgow Warriors juggernaut may have been halted as penalty goals made the difference in last week’s European Champions Cup clash visit to Montpellier, but there’s a belief that the arrival of the Guinness PRO12’s bottom club Benetton Treviso to Scotstoun Stadium today will see a quick revival.
There’s good reason for Warriors fans to expect plenty of treats on Halloween.
Gregor Townsend, the head coach who it turns out is partial to quoting famed Prussian military chief of staff and strategist Moltke the Elder in his weekly newspaper column, has already orchestrated three wins over the Italian club this calendar year, his Warriors scoring 14 tries in the process – including six in their last battle, a 40-23 win in Treviso almost four weeks ago.
His army may be heavily depleted by 17 international call-ups to Vern Cotter’s Scotland squad, leading to 12 changes to the starting XV that took to the field in France, but Townsend admitted he was pleased with the squad he was able to select, praising his enviable resources that come close to matching a standard NFL roster in number.
“It’s a strong team we’ve got out,” Townsend said. “I’m very pleased with the team and I’m excited about some of the guys off the bench making their first appearances this year, or their first ever for the club.
“I’m confident the players will carry on the momentum, but it’s tough.
“Italy have had a camp this week and those players seem to be available for Treviso, the likes of [Michele] Campagnaro, [Alessandro] Zanni and [Simone] Favaro, who we expect to be playing for Italy, so it’s fortunate we’ve got a lot of depth in our squad.
“I’m delighted for our players. It suggests a lot of those players [who haven’t been released] will be involved against Argentina next week, so that’s great for them.
“It’s about managing the fact now that we have more players in the [Scotland] squad, and our next one is the one where we’ll have the least players available because our Fijians and Canadians will be away.
“I’m pleased with the depth we’ve got and a good thing is, injury-wise, we’re in a good place just now and players are coming back from injury.”
There is an element of fortune for the Warriors head coach that he has been afforded the services of his Fijian and Canadian contingent, for at least this game if not for the Friday 21 November clash with the Scarlets in Llanelli.
Fiji will be in Vannes to face the USA on the same day, while Canada will be in Bucharest to take on Romania and Scotland will do battle with Tonga in Kilmarnock on the Saturday.
Only openside flanker Chris Fusaro has been deemed surplus to requirements by Scotland this week and returned to the second-place PRO12 club, while outside-half/centre Peter Horne can take his place in the starting XV after a brief call-up as injury cover for Cotter’s training camp in Jesmond.
While rivals Edinburgh are facing an injury crisis almost 20 deep, the Warriors have been able to bring back experienced campaigners Ryan Grant and Ryan Wilson to their pack, with centre Richie Vernon also returning.
Meanwhile props Jon Welsh and Mike Cusack, who has played just one match in two years, are also on the comeback trail with club outings on their radar ahead of a return to the even greater demands professional rugby.
“I know it’s two years ago, but [Mike] was outstanding for us in the scrum and very good in the loose,” Townsend said. “We believe he’ll come back and he’s getting closer to making that happen.”
Townsend also welcomed back Canadian international Connor Braid to Glasgow from a three-week loan spell with London Scottish, where he featured on the wing and at centre for the Richmond-based club, scoring three tries in his four appearances.
Braid will provide cover at 10 and across the backline and has a chance to prove he is worthy of a contract extension when his current deal expires in the coming weeks.
Their last outing in the PRO12 was a 29-9 defeat against Ulster in Belfast earlier this month.
It was the first of the season after five consecutive wins, and with their Scotland internationals involved, a luxury they no longer have, but the Warriors have been preparing for life with their squad players, including match time at BT Premiership clubs in anticipation of being called into action during the international window.
Dealing with the loss of many of the club’s star players is still something everyone at the Warriors, including the coaches who have been keen to point out that three of their four regular season defeats last season came during the two international windows, is getting used to.
“It’s a challenge for us as a coaching team,” Townsend added. “It’s a reason why we have to have a squad of 43 and, this week, we’ve got a couple of [BT Academy players] involved so you’ve got about 50 players to pick from.
“Last year, we won this corresponding game. We lost the one during November to Newport Gwent Dragons and we lost two in the Six Nations [to the Dragons and Leinster away], so it is a challenging period when players aren’t involved.
“The one thing we’ve done different is last Wednesday we had a game just along the road at Dalziel against a combined BT Academy team, so [centres] James Downey and Richie Vernon got to play together, [prop] Ryan Grant got to play, [number 8] Ryan Wilson, so they’ve had a hit-out together.
“Some of them have also played club level, which has been great for their match fitness, but to actually play together that should help and they’ve looked very good in training this week.”
Ian Davies, the man in the middle on Friday night, will be someone the Warriors will remember, perhaps not fondly, from a stormy affair last October when Munster left Scotstoun 13-6 winners.
Townsend felt they should have been awarded a penalty try at the death, while there were accusations over serious foul play from both clubs after the match.
In the last two matches Davies has refereed involving the Warriors, he has sin binned their tighthead prop late in the second half: Moray Low yellow carded in Belfast in September 2013 and Jon Welsh in the aforementioned Munster match.
The Welsh referee is no stranger to brandishing his yellow card. In his nine matches last season, the yellow card came out 12 times, and has already come out four times in three matches this season, all four times to Munster players in the second half of their impressive 34-23 win over Leinster earlier this month.
While the Warriors have been scoring tries for fun against Treviso this year, there is also the tricky issue of discipline that may be on some minds, with five yellow cards in those three matches.
Perhaps it is testament to the Warriors’ resilience that they have come through those setbacks relatively unscathed, but Townsend insisted that it isn’t a given that they can survive every time.
“It’s a massive thing for us, discipline,” he said. “We know we have to play better than the ref refs, as we say to our team.
“If you go down to 14 men at any time you’re going to be put under pressure, so we’ve shown really good resilience this year when it’s happened, but it’s an exception to the rule that you play better when you’ve got 14 men.”
The Warrior Nation may arrive at Scotstoun today set on another win against a club on an 11-match losing streak and hasn’t won in Scotland since 2012, but there was a weekly note of caution from their master strategist, quick to talk up some of Treviso’s strengths they’ll again need to negate if they are are to return to winning ways in the PRO12 and keep pressure on leaders Ospreys.
“Ulster played Zebre three weeks after they played them at home and lost away from home, so it’s a sign to that us that it will be a different game,” Townsend added. “The only thing we can say is that it was a very tough game in Treviso and the scoreline flattered us.
“We know how good they are and they’ve got guys like Zanni back in their team now, so they’ve got better and better in recent weeks.
“They play ambitious rugby and they’re a very good lineout-drive team; very good scrum. I felt we did really well more the game went on – at the end when young Zander [Fagerson] came on and when we had two players in the sin bin we managed to drive them off the ball at the lineout.
“The last five games now, starting from Treviso, Ulster, Bath, Montpellier and going back to Treviso, we’ve been playing against big packs who’ve really challenged us in those areas.
“We’ve got to stand up strong, and we’ll have learnt a lot from that period.”
Warriors team to face Treviso: Peter Murchie; Lee Jones, Richie Vernon, James Downey, DTH van der Merwe; Peter Horne, Niko Matawalu; Ryan Grant, Pat MacArthur, Rossouw de Klerk, Tom Ryder, Leone Nakarawa, Josh Strauss (captain), Chris Fusaro, Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: Dougie Hall, Alex Allan, Zander Fagerson, James Eddie, Will Bordill, Murray McConnell, Connor Braid, Rory Hughes.