Will it be a glorious final hurrah or a cursory good night and thanks for coming? For Glasgow and their departing coach Gregor Townsend, there are no more dress rehearsals, no more second chances.
As they seek to surprise everybody except themselves, Glasgow are acutely aware that Sunday’s 80 minutes in north London is the Warriors’ final chance to rescue their season, while bringing Townsend’s impressive six-year coaching tenure to a happy conclusion. Yet both are in dire danger of ending with a whimper.
Glasgow are effectively a Pro12 lame duck who need a minor miracle to overhaul Ulster and Scarlets to claim a play-off place, yet are in no realistic danger of slipping out of the top six. So Sunday’s game – the first Champions Cup quarter-final in Glasgow’s history – is not just their main focus – it is all they have left. But what a prize. It is so alluring that around 6,000 Glasgow fans will make their way to Allianz Park to see their side take on the reigning European champions, Saracens, in one of the most forbidding fortresses in European rugby.
What lies ahead is a daunting proposition. Glasgow may have trounced Leicester at Welford Road but the Tigers were in disarray and, despite being overwhelmed in Glasgow, they clearly failed to appreciate just how bold and ruthless the Warriors would be.
With four Scots in their squad – Sean Maitland and Jim Hamilton starting, with Kelly Brown and Duncan Taylor on the bench – plus former Ulster coach Mark McCall at the helm, Saracens will not repeat Leicester’s mistake. With a monster pack with a rock steady set-piece, a faultless goal-kicker in Owen Farrell, a famously aggressive defensive system custom-made to put pressure on Glasgow’s backs and stop Finn Russell’s long cut-out passes, plus a potent attacking threat in the free-scoring Chris Ashton, Saracens have many more weapons than Leicester.
Glasgow are such underdogs that this is a shot to nothing for them, so there is little doubt that they will give it a proper lash. But this is not all about creating organised chaos; there are also specific areas where they will seek entry into the game.
Saracens’ big back row of Michael Rhodes, Billy Vunipola and Jackson Wray is not so much one-paced as no-paced, so Glasgow will target the breakdown in the same way that Newcastle recently did so effectively against Sarries. Michael Conlon will surely feature off the bench.
Ashton and Sean Maitland might look good going forward, but Ashton, in particular, is vulnerable when the ball is put into space behind him. Glasgow wing Tommy Seymour is also significantly more effective in the air than his opposite number and compatriot Maitland, so expect to see Russell kick crossfield. But if Glasgow are to win what will be a punishingly fast game on an artificial surface in sunny conditions, it will be by playing at the savage tempo they produce when at their best.
For the Warriors to triumph, they also need to bring all the frustrations of the past couple of months to bear, which primarily means atoning for the disaster that was Twickenham. The Scotland side humbled by England contained 10 Glasgow players, with another three coming off the bench, and four former Warriors also playing.
Scotland’s capitulation at Twickenham was a disaster felt most acutely on Clydeside; it was a match that seemed to repudiate the strides made by both Scotland and the Warriors. Saracens are such overwhelming favourites that Sunday represents an unmistakable opportunity for redemption, plus a final chance for Glasgow’s finest to repair the collateral damage inflicted on their Lions aspirations by England.
Arguably, only the Lions prospects of the injured Stuart Hogg, Seymour and Greig Laidlaw were not harmed that day, while Maitland must have said a quiet prayer of thanks that he was the 24th man. At Twickenham, several Warriors, who battled to build Lions credit by beating Ireland and Wales, seemed to confirm Warren Gatland’s barely concealed prejudice that Scotland and Glasgow’s finest cannot win away from home, that they lack the necessary mental hardness for the big occasion. For Jonny Gray, Russell, Alex Dunbar and Fergus Brown, the S S Caledonia was a ship that went down with all hands that day.
For that quartet of Glasgow players, plus Hogg and Seymour, Sunday afternoon is their day in court. Hogg will be on the plane, but direct match-ups such as Gray v Itoje, Russell v Farrell, Dunbar v Barritt, Brown v George and Seymour v Maitland provide one final chance for Glasgow’s brightest and best to prove to Gatland they have what it takes.
As long as Glasgow can park the nagging fear that Sarries will do to them what England did to Scotland, this is a win-win for the Warriors, a match in which they have much to gain and little to lose. If they are beaten it will also be their last genuinely significant match with Gregor Townsend at the helm, and, if nothing else, it would be fitting if they gave the most successful Scottish club coach of the professional era a rousing farewell. It promises to be some game.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s acting head coach Duncan Hodge spoke of his frustration after his side’s 22-32 Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat to Top 14 leaders La Rochelle. The French side scored two early line-out drives but, despite continual basic errors, Edinburgh fought back to 23-26 with 15 minutes remaining, only to squander a gilt-edged try-scoring chance and then give La Rochelle two late penalties.
“That was an eminently winnable game but we lacked composure,” said Hodge. “We should have come back to 29-29 when we were on their line with a four-man overlap but failed to capitalise. I’m gutted, so are the players.They’re the top side in France and we could have, should have, won.
“We spoke beforehand about discipline and giving them no easy entries into our 22, but did so the first three times we caught the ball. These guys feed off unstructured play and line-out drives and that’s what we fed them in the first 20 minutes.”