Or, is it Calcutta Cup: the Rematch?
Going into this crunch European quarter-final against Saracens, Glasgow have this week been given the semi-pleasing prospect of a home semi-final at Murrayfield against Munster or Toulouse – and the final also takes place there in May. Unlike more regionally loyal areas in say England or France, Scottish rugby fans outside of the immediate localities of Edinburgh and Glasgow tend to support both teams unless they are playing each other. A chance for a day (or two) in the sunshine at BT Murrayfield after the recent positive Six Nations could be a big draw for rugby fans across Scotland, especially with so many familiar players on show.
That assures them a strong backing if they can get there, but now the daydreaming is out of the way let’s be honest: the hurdle in front of them is huge.
Current European and Premiership champions Saracens’ strength is built on their defence and they will look to monster the Warriors up front. If their team “Wolf Pack” ethos can hunt down and stifle Glasgow’s creative sparkle they have more than enough in their backline to do damage even without Duncan Taylor at full fitness. They put 8 tries past Bath last weekend, and while Bath are having a hit and miss season, they still lie 5th in the Premiership.
Glasgow’s clear strengths lie in their attacking play. Stuart Hogg just plain scares some defences now; he barely has to do anything but run alongside them to inspire panic like a fox amongst the chickens. Witness at least two of Scotland’s tries against Italy.
Whether Saracens will cluck on demand is another matter.
Saracens use a careful application of killer instinct, which is something great teams (from the All Blacks down) do very well and is probably where Towsend’s men want to be. It’s led them to the knockout stages of Europe at the last 6 times of asking.
Hogg’s threat should give Tommy Seymour and Lee Jones space to operate. Pete Horne and Alex Dunbar will start in the centres, but there was definitely a case for the less familiar Nick Grigg to start at 13 and save Horne’s class and versatility for the bench. Finn Russell and Henry Pyrgos will, you hope, be looking to play at pace and their success at this may determine Glasgow’s success overall.
Saracens will have home field advantage but the artificial pitch doesn’t offer them as much of an edge as it does against some teams used to grass, as the Glasgow lads are by this point well used to Scotstoun’s new pitch as well as the 4G at BT Murrayfield. Familiarity with the surface does not, however, mean that they’ll be able to stop Billy Vunipola if he gets rumbling at a venue where Saracens have never lost a European game.
Above “grass” level, things are also not unfamiliar. Kelly Brown said he has been waiting years for his new team to play his old club and ex-Scotland stalwarts aside, following the 6 Nations a lot of these players will be familiar with each other. Brown could feature from the bench as will Duncan Taylor, while Jim Hamilton and Sean Maitland could start. A full compliment of Scots alongside Farrell, the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and Jamie George, who all took part in the beasting Scotland suffered at Twickenham.
It will also help Glasgow that a fantastically noisy contingent of around 5,500 away fans will travel to London for the game. That’s more, sadly, than most Edinburgh home crowds (5,000 are expected for La Rochelle tonight) and should go a small way to inspiring the players as they did at Welford Road with just half that number.
The biggest worry should be that Glasgow play like Scotland did at Twickenham – they don’t turn up.
Big occasions can be overwhelming and you need only look at the post-Foley game against Munster or that recent Calcutta Cup debacle to see evidence of many of these players failing to prepare mentally. Glasgow can, on occasion, be bullied out of a game.
The fitness of Zander Fagerson and Tommy Seymour is also perhaps a worry, with both left out last weekend due to injury.
So there is the fear that they can’t match the physicality of Saracens, and this is where Brian Alainu’uese comes in perhaps. Any niggle in the game won’t help and Fraser Brown needs to be the assured veteran of last weekend not the headless chicken of Twickenham. Hogg and Russell will be targeted for a friendly welcome, and Horne will be a target for Saracens ball carriers. If Glasgow can impose their own game then there is no doubt it will be a contest for at least an hour, but there is still that suspicion as with England that Saracens will have too much in reserve.
Much like Scotland, Saracens will be confident in the relative merits of the benches especially now that Tim Swinson is banned for 4 weeks following his red card challenge against Connacht. Scott Cummings is not on the injured list and would perhaps have been a better bench option than Greg Peterson but we think isn’t registered for Europe.
In addition to the prospect of progressing further in Europe, there are also a couple of direct shootouts with potential places on the British & Irish Lions tour up for grabs. It could be the last big stage to perform on before Warren Gatland announces his team.
Owen Farrell vs Finn Russell: Farrell is already on the plane to New Zealand but Finn Russell could do his chances of a third standoff berth no harm with an assured performance. Saracens will almost certainly look to unsettle him, as the one thing a solid defensive system can’t account for is pure instinct and Russell has that in spades.
Fraser Brown vs Jamie George: Two highly rated 2s not quite holding down a starting international jersey. With Dylan Hartley going backwards in the minds of many and a mixed tournament for Rory Best, there are still one or possibly two hooker slots up for grabs with the Lions.
Tommy Seymour vs Sean Maitland: a wing pick could come down to a 50/50 call between two Scots. Maitland is on good club form but was dropped from international duty after an injury in favour of Tim Visser and never reappeared. It’s unlikely these two will both travel, and Gatland is probably a fan of Maitland who was a Lion in 2013. Seymour featured on many pundit’s teams but had a quiet tournament and needs a big performance to force his way back into contention.
Jonny Gray vs Maro Itoje: Could be huge. Itoje was in good form against Bath, he’s their golden boy, and Jonny is ours. Itoje added a niggly streak to his game during the 6 Nations which didn’t endear him to Scots or Irish fans (or possibly Stuart Hogg) but Jonny is also adding a “streetwise” aspect to his work in the boilerhouse.
There are plenty of other matchups that could be similarly interesting in the later stages: Rory Hughes vs Chris Ashton, Alex Dunbar vs Duncan Taylor…
It could be the game of the season – but then we said that about the Calcutta Cup matchup featuring many of the same players. Let’s hope Townsend was paying attention and sends his team out to give the best possible performance.
Saracens are still odds-on favourites for the win which is why if Glasgow can pull it off down there, it would be the greatest result in their history. Glasgow admit having used Saracens as a model on and off the pitch for while, right down to importing the odd South African.
Sometimes you should admire your heroes; but sometimes you have to overcome your awe.
Glasgow team to face Saracens at Allianz Park, Sunday 2nd April 1pm (live on Sky Sports): Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, Lee Jones, Finn Russell, Henry Pyrgos (capt); Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Brian Alainu’uese, Jonny Gray (capt), Rob Harley, Ryan Wilson, Adam Ashe.
Replacements: Corey Flynn, Alex Allan, Sila Puafisi, Greg Peterson, Chris Fusaro, Ali Price, Nick Grigg, Rory Hughes.
Saracens team: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch, Brad Barritt (capt), Sean Maitland, Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vuniploa, Jamie George, Juan Figallo, Maro Itoje, Jim Hamilton, Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Schalk Brits, Titi Lamositele, Vincent Koch, Kelly Brown, Joel Conlon, Ben Spencer, Alex Lozowski, Duncan Taylor.
Referee: Jerome Garces (FFR)