Underdogs Glasgow full of expectation on Champions Cup journey to Saracens

Paul Rees
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Finn Russell, right, and Glasgow overwhelmed Leicester in January and 5,000 away fans will hope they do the same at Saracens.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images</span>
Finn Russell, right, and Glasgow overwhelmed Leicester in January and 5,000 away fans will hope they do the same at Saracens. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Glasgow are going boldly to where they have never been before. The closest they came to the last eight of the European Cup before now was in 1998, when Leicester crushed them 90-19 in a play-off to get into the quarter-finals, and their record since then is largely one of dismal failure on the road.

Before this season they had won six and lost 45 matches away but, having won at Racing 92, the side Saracens defeated in last year’s final in Lyon, and Leicester, where they achieved a measure of revenge for what had happened at Welford Road 19 years before with a stunning 43-0 victory, Glasgow and the 5,000 supporters expected to make the trip south will not be dosing up on travel sickness pills.

“We are aware of the level of the challenge,” says the Scotland flanker Rob Harley. “Saracens are a top side but that makes it exciting.

“We have shown this season that we can compete with any team in Europe. We will probably go into the game as underdogs but we back ourselves to beat anyone, as we showed in the group stage. It is about maximising our potential and, if we play our best hand, we can win anywhere.”

Still the Pro12 side’s task on Sunday is daunting. Saracens have not lost at home for 13 months and they have not been beaten at Allianz Park in the European Cup. Since Clermont Auvergne defeated them at Vicarage Road in January 2011, their only “home” defeat in the tournament came against Toulouse at Wembley in 2013, but on their own ground they have won 16 in a row (Racing were defeated in Belgium in 2012) and they are unbeaten in their last 15 games at their north London ground.

Glasgow, under their head coach, Gregor Townsend, now travel well. They started the season with a 41-5 victory at Connacht and November’s 23-14 victory at Racing was only their third in France in 18 seasons of competing in the European Cup. “There is a good atmosphere in Scottish rugby,” says Harley. “The Test side and the two Pro12 teams are feeding off each other and it is a virtuous cycle of continuing improvement.

“Our aim at the start of the season was to do well in Europe, after making the Pro 12 play-offs in the last few years and winning the title [in 2015]. We were conscious we had not taken a step in the Champions Cup and progressing from the group stage was a major goal. Having done that, we are hungry to take the next step and keep building.”

Glasgow are one of Europe’s flair sides. Their half-backs, Ali Price and Finn Russell, look to set the tempo, Stuart Hogg at full-back has been voted Six Nations player of the year for the second successive campaign for his attacking virtuosity and in the wing Tommy Seymour they have a finisher to rival Saracens’ Chris Ashton on a day when one of the most potent attacks in the professional club game will be confronted by the most unyielding defence.

“It promises to be a clash of styles,” says Harley. “It is important for us to try and dictate the game because they do have a great defence and the ability to shut down opponents. If we can open up the game, get into our tempo and play open rugby, that will suit us but that is part of the challenge.

“They are one of the top defensive sides in Europe and it is working out how we can bring tempo into the game. It is useful to have laid down a marker at Racing and Leicester, games which showed that, while we respect opponents, we do not fear anyone. We know we have the ability to win any match.”

Glasgow will carry a surprise element because, other than Wasps, Saracens are not used to coming up against such gung-ho opponents. “That’s true and we hope it works to our advantage,” says Harley. “The surface at Allianz Park will suit our style and we are used to it because we had an artificial pitch laid at Scotstoun last year.

“This is probably the biggest game in our history after the 2015 [Pro12] final, but we have not changed our training this week, which has been the same as for all our other European games. The fact it is such a big occasion provided an edge and it is an exciting time for players, management and fans. We have had good travelling support all season and we are bringing 5,000 supporters with us.”

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