08 October 2013

Warriors making waves

The Glasgow Warriors are making waves. They sit undefeated at the top of the Pro 12 with five wins heading into the Heineken Cup break. It is pretty rarefied air for a Scottish team as the Scottish clubs have had their ups and downs over the years in the league.

You only have to go back to 2011, when Glasgow finished 11th out of twelve teams in what was then the Magner’s League. In the same year Edinburgh finished in 8th position.

But Glasgow have been building some momentum for a while. In 2012 they finished 4th in the regular season only to lose a semi-final to Leinster by just one score in Dublin. Leinster went on to be crowned European Champions a week later.

It was a period of some turmoil for Glasgow as it was announced a couple of months earlier that the then coach, Sean Lineen, was to be replaced by Gregor Townsend as head coach the following season.

Sean Lineen was a popular head coach in Glasgow and seemed to have turned the programme around after the disastrous campaign the previous season. After all, losing a semi-final away from home, to the soon to be crowned European Champions, was not a bad outcome for the season.

But for whatever reason, which Scottish administrators continually failed to make clear, Sean Lineen was moved on. Townsend had also copped his fair share of criticism as assistant coach to the Scottish National Team. So in some quarters, his elevation to Head Coach of Glasgow was seen as a promotion based on his rugby profile rather than his coaching prowess.

It was a highly controversial decision in the Glasgow rugby community and it immediately put Gregor Townsend under the gun for his first season in charge.

But Glasgow and Townsend have responded well. In fact last season Glasgow fared one better by finishing in 3rd place of the Pro 12 for the regular season. Their reward for winning sixteen games was a déja vu semi-final away to Leinster.

Once again Leinster prevailed in a very tight game by just two points. Within a few weeks Leinster clinched the Pro 12 title along with the Amlin Challenge Cup. So in recent years, if not winning silverware, Glasgow have at least been successfully running with the big dogs.

This year may be different and the evidence to date is it could well be. Glasgow’s defence has been the stingiest so far in the tournament, only conceding two tries in their first five games. That’s an excellent record when you consider Cardiff, Ulster, Leinster, Zebre and Llanelli are the combatants they have shut down.

Part of Glasgow’s success in defence has been their ability to hold onto the ball in attack through excellent continuity. That attacking continuity puts a lot of pressure on teams, making them defend through multiple phases. After all it is very hard for the opposition to score if they haven’t got the ball.

Gregor Townsend seems to have stamped that aspect of his own game onto the Glasgow game plan. As a fly-half, winning eighty two caps for Scotland, he always looked to keep the ball in hand. His distribution skills allowed him to bring the players around him into the game. He combined that skill with always remaining a threat to the gain line himself, which created even more space for his support runners.

Also, it has been noticeable when Glasgow kick the ball away they are very well organised defensively and combine that organisation with the rugged aggression we all associate with Scottish Rugby.

Their squad is primarily driven by home grown Scottish talent with just a handful of low-key overseas signings. Also, their home venue at Scotstoun, has become a very difficult venue for any team in the Pro 12 to go and eek out a result.

There’s no doubt that the folks in Glasgow are quietly planning to take the next step this season, by making the final of the Pro 12 and even winning the competition. At this point and in their current form there is no reason for them to believe otherwise.

But in the meantime there is a small item on the agenda. Rounds one and two of this season’s Heineken Cup will be played out over the next two weekends. First up Glasgow face Toulon away from home, followed by Exeter the following Sunday.

Last year in a more difficult group of Ulster, Northampton and Castre, they finished at the bottom with just one win. The danger for Glasgow is a poor run of form in the Heineken could undermine the confidence they are building throughout the Pro 12.

This year Glasgow are not in the most difficult pool of this year’s Heineken Cup. They can beat Cardiff, they could beat Exeter and they might beat Toulon in Scotstoun.

If on the other hand if they were to shock Toulon next Sunday afternoon and leave Stade Felix Mayol with a victory, then Glasgow would have to believe that anything is possible.

Should they sink the European Champions in their own back yard, it is fair to say the waves the Glasgow Warriors are currently making could well become a tsunami.