Guinness PRO12: Richie Vernon returns to centre of attention

Scotland international aiming to lay down a marker in the Glasgow Warriors midfield against Zebre after forward cameo in Europe

Richie Vernon is hoping to put down a marker when he lines up against Zebre in Sunday’s Guinness PRO12 match.

While his Glasgow Warriors midfield colleagues Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and Peter Horne have been away with Scotland’s Six Nations squad, Vernon has spent the two weeks since their European exit in a mini pre-season with those who didn’t receive call-ups for the national team, going through fitness testing, set-piece moves and defensive drills at training.

It’s a great chance to get a run in the team and to play some of my best rugby.

Richie Vernon

After a brief return to life as a forward when he lined-up at number eight in the Warriors’ final European Champions Cup pool match against Bath last month, the 27-year-old is looking forward to another chance to shine among the backs against a Zebre side also plundered for international duty and having to draft in players from Eccellenza clubs to make up the numbers.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time in the centres,” he said.

“I had a good run of games last season. This year I’ve had a few injuries and been in and out, but I’m looking forward to putting a marker down.

“The three guys who are playing away with Scotland have done brilliantly well so, for me, it’s a great chance to get a run in the team and to play some of my best rugby.

“It was a strange experience being back at number eight. I enjoyed the challenge of it for a week, but for the rest of the season I’ll be doing all I can at the centre positions.”

The Warriors are again dominating Scotland’s backline in the Six Nations, but have allowed experienced centre James Downey to join Aviva Premiership club Wasps on loan until the end of the season.

The decision by Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend to let Downey go may have seemed perplexing with so many players away for much of the next six weeks, but the Warriors still have midfield options for their match at the Stadio Lanfranchi (formerly Stadio XXV Aprile) in Parma knowing they could go top on Sunday with a win if rivals Edinburgh do them a favour by defeating the Ospreys at Myreside on Friday night.

We’ve obviously got Zebre twice over the next few weeks and they’re two huge games for us. It’s a great time for us to put those title credentials to the test and test out our wider squad.

Richie Vernon

Connor Braid has returned to Scotstoun on loan from London Scottish, but the versatile Canadian international, who has played at 12 or 13 during much of his time with the Greene King IPA Championship club, is expected to make his first start for the Warriors at stand-off with Horne and Finn Russell away with Scotland and Duncan Weir and Gregor Hunter injured.

Braid’s international colleague DTH van der Merwe is a realistic contender to step into midfield from his customary left wing position, but 26-year-old versatile back Fraser Lyle – picked up by the Warriors from Stirling County in November – is in line to make his professional debut inside Vernon despite playing much of his rugby in the BT Premiership at stand-off with Townsend impressed by his performance for Glasgow ‘A’ in December and how he has performed in training in the last week.

Despite the lack of experienced midfield options, there is no concern among the players or coaches over their ability to cope with a PRO12 match which starts in northern Italy just two hours before Scotland host Wales in their RBS 6 Nations clash at BT Murrayfield.

“It’s always a big challenge this time of year with the amount of guys that we lose,” Vernon added.

“I don’t think there’s many teams in the whole of Europe who lose as many guys as we do, but we’re very confident in our squad.

“You can make up ground on [teams] or you can lose ground in that top four race; we’d like to get a home semi as well.

“We’re looking at these next few games. We’ve obviously got Zebre twice over the next few weeks and they’re two huge games for us.

“It’s a great time for us to put those title credentials to the test and test out our wider squad.

“It’s amazing here how big the squad is so we’ll be putting that to the test at the weekend.”

Their record on the road doesn’t make for promising reading with four defeats in their last four away trips, and Zebre picked up a losing bonus point when the Warriors won 24-17 in the last match in Parma back in September 2013.

Going over there, we’ve had some tough games in the last few years and it’s going to be a tough one.

Richie Vernon

But the Warriors have lost just three times in 24 previous encounters with Italian opposition in all competitions, that last defeat by Benetton Treviso in September 2011, and they have picked up a try-scoring bonus point in two of their four victories over Zebre.

Despite hammering the bianconeri 54-0 when the sides last met at Scotstoun in May, Vernon still expects the Italians to cause plenty of problems.

“It’s great this time of year, because it gives guys who haven’t had much of a chance to put a marker down and play well,” he said.

“We’re targeting these next few games. It’s a really important time period for us.

“The last few seasons, this is the time of year where we’ve played some great rugby and that’s given us momentum to challenge for the top four at the end of the year.

“We’re expecting at tough, physical game.

“They’ve always got a strong pack of forwards and they’ll really take it to us set-piece-wise.

“From analysing them this week, they like to play a lot as well, so they’ll back themselves from the outside and they’ve got a lot of dangerous runners.

“They’re a dangerous team and they’re always really difficult to play against over there, so we’re going to have to be patient in what we do and put a lot of pressure on their defence to get the result we want.

“Going over there, we’ve had some tough games in the last few years and it’s going to be a tough one.”

The Warriors have been handed an injury boost with forwards Rossouw de Klerk, Tim Swinson, Tyrone Holmes and Josh Strauss, as well as wing Lee Jones, all back in training and available for selection.

Townsend will name his team to face Zebre on Friday afternoon.

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