Glasgow go into tomorrow's home match against Pro12 champions Connacht knowing that defeat would end their faint hopes of making the play-offs for the first time in five seasons under Gregor Townsend. Sixth-placed Glasgow are currently 11 points adrift of fourth-placed Ulster, with just five Pro12 games to go, two of which involve trips to Ireland to play Leinster and Munster, plus home games against Zebre and Edinburgh.
Realistically, Glasgow need to win all five of their remaining games, most with bonus points, and hope that Ulster and Scarlets, who are seven points ahead, both lose at least two of their remaining games. Given that both the Welsh and Irish sides play the struggling Dragons, while Scarlets also play bottom side Zebre, the stars will have to align perfectly for Glasgow to appear in a fifth successive semi-final.
Asked whether Glasgow had to win all of their remaining games to have any chance, Townsend just replied: “Probably, but it’d be nice if we could achieve that. The next three games are hugely exciting and also hugely challenging – we’re playing the reigning Pro12 champions, reigning European champions and then Munster away, who’ve probably been the best team in Europe this season. So let’s see how we get on in those games. It would be great to come out of this period and still be in two competitions [Glasgow travel to Saracens for the quarter-final of the Champions Cup next week], that would be the goal.”
Glasgow are aided by the return of several internationals tomorrow evening. Chief amongst them is Stuart Hogg, recently named RBS Player of the Six Nations for the second year running. The full-back plays in a back three that includes veteran Sean Lamont – who has announced that he will retire fat the end of this season – and Scotland wing Rory Hughes.
Half-backs Finn Russell and Ali Price also return, as does second row Tim Swinson, while Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid and Alex Dunbar are all on the bench. However, with the Munster game in a fortnight and Glasgow’s trip to Allianz Park next week – the first time the club has featured in the Champions Cup knockout rounds – there is an understandable reluctance to throw in all the returning Test players.
“All the guys were keen to play,” said Townsend. “But we don’t see Tommy [Seymour] and Zander [Fagerson] being major worries for next week. Jonny [Gray] was keen to play but we felt it was right that he rested, while Henry Pyrgos has played five games [so has to be rested]. The bonus is that players like Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Ali Price, Tim Swinson, Gordy Reid, Fraser Brown, Alex Dunbar have come back in really good health. It gives us a good boost to have that quality available.”
The Glasgow coach also rejected any suggestions that the Warriors’ focus might already be shifting to next week. Instead, he argued, memories of last season when Connacht denied Glasgow a home semi-final and then beat them in Galway, would be sufficient motivation for the visit of the Pro12 champions.
“We’ve all got memories of losing to Connacht twice at the end of the last season, so we certainly want to play well against them because no player or coach wants to lose, and playing at home makes it doubly important, especially for those players who haven’t played at Scotstoun since January,” said Townsend. “And also for our chances of getting into the play-offs – we need to be winning, in fact we need to go on a winning run until the end of the season.
“It’s also a really good game for us to be involved in – Connacht play really good running rugby, which is a huge test for your defence but it means it’ll be a high-tempo game from either team. These are the games we love to play in, and it’s how we train – it should be a cracking match..”
Townsend also confirmed that No 8 Josh Strauss, who will have tests on his injured kidney next week after six weeks of enforced rest, may not play again this season, but that wing Leonardo Sarto is close to coming back after a long lay-off with a damaged shoulder. He also said that several fringe players returning from injury – such as Chris Fusaro, Greg Peterson, Tijuee Uanivi, and Sam Johnson – are playing club rugby tomorrow and will be considered for the Saracens game if fit.
Glasgow (v Connacht, Scotstoun 5.15pm): S Hogg; S Lamont, N Grigg, P Horne (capt), R Hughes; F Russell, A Price; A Allan, C Flynn, S Puafisi, T Swinson, B Alainu’uese, R Harley, M Smith, A Ashe. *Replacements: F Brown, G Reid, D Rae, S Cummings, L Wynne, G Horne, A Dunbar, P Murchie.