As Glasgow’s season and Gregor Townsend’s tenure as Warrior’s coach draw meekly to an unsatisfactory end, the fag-end of the season is being put to sensible use by blooding the next generation.
The process gets under way with Friday evening’s outing against second-bottom Zebre at Scotstoun, with 18-year-old Matt Fagerson, the younger brother of 21-year-old Scotland tighthead Zander, starting at No 8 for the first time, a debut of sorts that has excited his coach.
“Matt started at openside against Zebre earlier this season but it’s his first start at No 8,” said Townsend. “He is a player with real potential, who has played very well for the Under-20s this year at seven but who did a lot of ball carrying. He is someone we have high hopes for, so this is a good game to bring him in and let him get a feel for things at this level. He’ll also bring a good balance to the back row, playing as a real ball carrying No 8 between Chris Fusaro and Rob Harley.”
Although Townsend sees a bright future for a youngster he one day sees playing “at the highest level”, he has yet to decide where Fagerson’s career in the back row lies. If he remains at 6ft 1in, he will probably be an openside, but if he grows another two or three inches he could possibly become the big ball-carrying No 8 Glasgow will need in the absence of Josh Strauss, and Scotland would love to develop.
“We maybe aren’t going to produce players like Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes or Louis Picamoles, but what we can be is strong and effective ball-carriers and Matt has that potential,” said Townsend. “But we’ve also seen players playing at seven who can be good ball-carriers, such as Hamish Watson, so it will be interesting to see where the game goes and whether sevens will need to be equally as good in attack as in defence, whether we’ll need big ball-carriers at No 8 or if we’ll look for No 8s who play the game slightly differently, like a Kieran Read or Jamie Heaslip. It will depend on how Matt develops physically and on his rugby learning – he’s a committed tackler and loves to compete for ball, and has a very good attacking skillset, carrying and passing the ball.”
Sadly for Fagerson junior, older brother Zander – who Matt says has been “a massive influence and a real inspiration” – is sidelined with an injured foot. However, there may yet be another brotherly combination in action with Peter Horne starting at stand-off and younger brother George on the bench.
A whole host of senior Warriors, including Adam Ashe, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar, Simone Favaro, James Malcom, Josh Strauss, Richie Vernon and Ryan Wilson are also injured, while Tim Swinson is still sidelined after his red card against Connacht. With mainstays Stuart Hogg, Lee Jones, Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Ali Price, Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Corey Flynn and Tommy Seymour all rested, the side has a distinctly second XV feel.
One of the main beneficiaries is Italian wing Leonardo Sarto, who returns after shoulder surgery in October. Since joining from Parma last summer, the wing has made only six appearances but has scored three tries, so his appearance in a back three with Peter Murchie and Rory Hughes will be of much interest to Townsend.
Edinburgh’s Scotland second row Grant Gilchrist has re-signed for another two seasons. The club co-captain’s career has been blighted by injury, but he has still managed to make almost 100 appearances for Edinburgh and win 16 caps for Scotland. Edinburgh play Treviso in Italy on Saturday.