Glasgow Warriors coach Gregor Townsend says Sunday’s Champions Cup quarter-final against champions Saracens at Allianz Park is “a brilliant occasion for Scottish rugby”. More than 5,500 Warriors fans have bought tickets and are travelling down from Clydeside, while a large contingent of Scots living in London are also expected to attend.
Both teams contain a sizeable number of Scots, with Glasgow’s starting line-up containing no fewer than 14 Scotland internationals and Saracens having four in their match-day squad – starters Jim Hamilton and Sean Maitland, and Kelly Brown and Duncan Taylor on the bench.
“It will be almost a home game with the support we will have there – and the Warriors fans make a fair bit of noise,” said Townsend. “We were blown away in the first Pro12 final when we had three or four thousand there, but now it’s 5,500 officially and I’m sure others will get along there. We had about 1,000 at Leicester and it gave the players a boost when they arrived. It gave us more energy.”
Unlike that match, in which the Warriors thrashed Leicester 43-0 in the pool stages, Glasgow will need all the help they can get against a Saracens side who have not lost in Europe for almost two years, who are unbeaten at Allianz Park this season and who are overwhelming 1-10 favourites with the bookies. But while conceding that Saracens “have been the best in Europe over the past couple of seasons”, Townsend rejected any notion that his side feel like underdogs.
“To be honest that hasn’t been something that we have talked about or mentioned,” he said. “We have just been in our zone of how we normally prepare for a game, obviously with a bit more detail this week because it’s a Sunday game with an extra day’s coaching and training, so we have been able to look at our opponents a little bit more. We believe we can win and we have to deliver our best performance to win and that is all that matters for us.”
While Townsend is aware that the presence of so many Scots in the home side – not to mention two months of analysis and that game at Welford Road to study – will mean that there is little that Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall will not know about Glasgow, the Warriors have also been prepared mentally and physically for this match by Scotland’s crushing humiliation at Twickenham in a match which featured 10 Glasgow players.
That experience could, Townsend believes, help Glasgow to spring a surprise at Saracens. Not only were the Warriors players introduced to Saracens’ defensive system, because a variation is also used by England, but the motivation to win has been further heightened by the crushing defeat.
“We are playing Saracens, not England, but I would hope that there will be real determination not to miss this opportunity to deliver a true reflection of what they are capable of,” he said. “They have to do this at the weekend or we are not going to be winning.”
Although Glasgow are without the injured Mark Bennett, Josh Strauss, Simone Favaro, Leonardo Sarto and Richie Vernon, plus the suspended Tim Swinson, they are otherwise at full strength and welcome back co-captain Jonny Gray.
More surprising is the inclusion of scrum-half Henry Pyrgos in the starting line-up rather than the livewire Ali Price, who has impressed for Scotland and Glasgow this season. The decision was taken, said Townsend, on the basis of Pyrgos’s greater experience, leadership and tactical nous.
Organisation will certainly be important against Sarries’ stellar line-up, although Townsend promised that Glasgow would be significantly more confrontational and difficult to break down than the last Scottish team to arrive in London in good spirits.
“We have to be able to impose our game in the way that has been successful for us in both defence and attack,” he said. “There are areas because of how they defend or play the game where there could be opportunities, but we have to be at the highest level of focus and communication ever, and underlying that has to be physicality.
“Saracens are a team that prides itself on big hits and getting off the line, and there are big men in their team, but we have big men as well.
“We also have an excellent defensive record and are second in the Champions Cup this year [to Munster – 86 to 64] in terms of points conceded, and that was with one match where we conceded a lot. In the other five games we set high standards and we have to do that again this week.”
The Glasgow coach is certainly labouring under no illusions about the scale of the challenge that awaits his side. Weeks of studying footage of Saracens’ games and the knowledge of what happened to Glasgow’s players at Twickenham have tempered Townsend’s natural optimism. Yet it is clear that he still believes that Glasgow’s first Champions Cup quarter-final is a game from which his side can emerge triumphant.
“As a club player this is the ultimate challenge,” he said. “There are things Saracens do very well, better than other teams – kicking, defence, set piece. Add in their individual players, guys who will be starting Tests for the Lions, and it is a quality side – but we are excited about the challenge because we believe we have the quality and the players to win this game.”