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The Warrior Nation march south to take on Saracens

Gregor Townsend
Gregor Townsend - pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

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)

33 Responses

  1. Saracens by 15 points I’m afraid. Saracens are really hitting there straps and I am not sure Glasgow have the players available and playing well enough to put enough pressure on Sarries at the Allianz. I hope differently but I cant see any scenario where Glasgow keep Sarries out enough.

    1. Four of the family heading to the match from Galway tomorrow morning. Perhaps we shouldn’t bother eh ?
      Glasgow to nick it by 3 !

      1. Well, here’s an Edinburgh fan joining the Warriors army with Glasgow relatives this Sunday at the Allianz. Good luck to both sides this weekend. Almost a miracle required of a so far wretched Embra team this season in the Pro 12. But a top of their game performance from Glasgow could see them through. Won’t have been amongst so many Glaswegians since I watched Hibs beat Celtic in the Drybrough Cup in 1973 at Hampden!

  2. Looked at the betting and Saracens are 1-10 on with the bookies. They certainly don’t give Glasgow a chance. I’d love to be positive, but any positivity went out of the window after the Calcutta cup.
    Shame Josh Strauss, Sarto and Favaro are injured. They’d have made a difference.
    Can Glasgow deal with the Gustard pressure defence? If they can they can run them close. If they can’t, It’s goodnight vienna.

  3. Glasgow are 8/1 in the betting, so are given less chance than Scotland had at Twixkenham.

    How is Pyrgos ever picked ahead of Price, the latter looks twice the player for ages now.

  4. Fine with Pyrgos over Price. Game management, gives Finn less responsibility and Price can make an impact sniping at tired legs. Likely the Scotland blueprint for big games.

    Be good to see season best performances from Brown, Ashe and Wilson.

    1. Good point, NRS, about the Scotland blueprint. A lot of fans have been wondering if Townsend will pick Price over Laidlaw for Scotland because of Price’s Glasgow form. Some have even (I think, ludicrously) wondered if Laidlaw will fade away from the Scotland scene entirely. This selection strongly suggests that Townsend will stick with Laidlaw as first choice, and therefore as captain, leader, kicker.

  5. Last week the Corey Flynn try had all black grit all over it and I would have preferred him starting. He has been invisible all season howeer I think he is a big game player, got what it takes to lead by example and tough it out. Fraser Brown tends to be vulnerable in such games.

    Muldoon’s try was a concern, just not enough cover so the back rows need to be special. The bench is, no better than, adequate (sorry lads , this is a huge game).

    I hope Glasgow give me and every other pessimist two fingers and tank them off the pitch.

  6. I think Glasgow are being written off purely on the home form of the competition. Saracens are not playing like the team they were last year but are obvious favourites in my eyes. Have my tickets nonetheless. Hotel booked in Luton for tonight. Driving down today as i need to be back up for work on Monday morning.

    Is there somewhere down there the fans are gathering?

    1. I think there has been a lot of good will towards Glasgow in the English press and lots of pundits have given them an outside chance of an upset. But Saracens are overwhelming favourites because they are two times defending champions, haven’t lost a home game in Europe for nearly 2 years and qualified for the knock out rounds without losing again. That is a fearsome record and a Glasgow win would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of the competition.

  7. Glasgow have struggled at times with a fast, rush defence. I really hope they have a plan in place to deal with this from Sarries.

    I also hope that, unlike Scotland at the Culcutta Cup, they have kept their heads down, not read the press and are not getting too wrapped up in their own hype. Coolheads and precision and they have a chance.

  8. Some wise heads after the Eng v Italy game were saying that what happened in that game wouldn’t do Scotland any favours…all complacency gone, England hungry. How right they were!
    I’m hoping for some reverse Twickenham (arghh!) on Sundaywhere some Sarries players turn up and see a opposing player they had on toast a few weeks before and just relax a little. Maybe not…..but I think this is something that English teams especially can be prey to.
    As for Glasgow, I guess they could arrive thinking “London =humping” or they might be thinking redemption!!
    In sport it is often a case of what comes around goes around. Easter approaches, which makes not bad timing for the redemption option.

  9. I don’t think Glasgow will pull of an upset here, I hope they do but cannot see it. I’d have been more confident with Favaro and Strauss available but I think the team has enough in them to run Sarries close.

    The main thing I’m hoping for is a good performance from Finn. When it comes to big games it seems to be famine or feast with him; he played awfully against England and was very poor (like most of the Warriors) at Munster earlier in the season, but he was amazing against Wales, and in Glasgow’s championship run in in 2015 he was incredible for the last few games, including the final. A strong game will put him into contention for the Lions, although I think he should tour anyway.

  10. Here’s my Scotland 23 picked from this game:

    1- Reid
    2- F. Brown
    3 – Fagerson
    4 – Gray
    5 – Hamilton
    6 – Harley
    7 – K. Brown
    8 – Wilson
    9 – Price
    10 – Russell
    11 – Maitland
    12 – Dunbar
    13 – Taylor
    14 – Seymour
    15 – Hogg
    16 – Ummm
    17 – Allan
    18 – Ummm
    19 – Ashe
    20 – Fusaro
    21 – Pyrgos
    22 – Horne
    23 – Hughes

    Excepting back up prop and hooker, not too shabby at all…and a decent foursome from Saracens.

    This must be the most Scottish champions cup QF ever.

  11. Saracens too strong; Glasgow hung in there incredibly well for much of this match and had a great chance to really put the pressure back on Saracens when Finn missed that second penalty to touch. At this level, it is just inexcusable to miss those kicks to touch (although I’ve just heard Owen Farrell say Finn was unlucky because the wind really affects kicks at the Allianz). Not saying we would have won, but another score of any kind for Glasgow at that point could have changed the psychology significantly.

    Garces gave Scotland a fair few penalties, but I don’t understand how he let Saracens players hang on at the breakdown (one egregious example towards the end on Glasgow’s line was extraordinary). Glasgow just never controlled the game, though and I go back to Finn’s kicks. A missed opportunity to get in Saracens’ 22 at the end of the first half and that other one around 60 minutes…he looked deflated at the end and surely knows he simply has to sort that aspect of his game out or give kicks to touch to someone more reliable.

  12. Agree with you AMcG. Losing 14-8 and Glasgow have a penalty to apply pressure. It was ‘roll the dice’ time. I’d have loved to see Glasgow run at them at that point. Fin misses touch, Britz gets the ball and makes a good break to halfway. Another Sarries try at the other side of the pitch. End of story.
    Also a shame that Johnny Gray lasted a only a few minutes before going off.
    Thought big Brian played well again, but not convinced that Corey Flynn adds anything to the pot. The scrum was good throughout but the line-out was under pressure all game.
    Saracens have been where Glasgow are now and learned from it. Hope we do the same.
    Looks like it’s ‘go for it’ against Munster and see what happens.

  13. Saracens looked far more accomplished than Glasgow and deserved the win.

    I thought Glasgow were average at best. The front pack defended well at times… J Gray leaving early probably affected the line out calling but doubt it would have made much difference.

    Badly missed the 1st choice players out injured.

    A fan of GT ..however …2 months of prep.. and thats the best he can get them playing? Bit of a worry for Scotland.

    Russell …his kicking is shocking….and today his handling wasn’t great either. Absolutely has to make those touch kicks at this level….

    Hogg… based on that performance and v England… got to say Id play Halfpenny or even Maitland at FB ahead of him too. Thats 2 huge games he has either gone missing or simply played badly. His defending is a liability…. if teams shut down his run game..he simply becomes a target for the opposition.

    As far as Lions goes…I didn’t see anyone representing Scotland who could get a 1st team spot… maybe Maitland.

    1. Hogg took a blow to the head in the 7th minute at Twickenham and went “missing” to the changing rooms for an HIA before the end of the first quarter. Not sure we can use that as evidence of why Halfpenny (who was missing for most of the 6 Nations) or Maitland (who wasn’t selected for half of it) should be in ahead of the player of the tournament. Hogg wasn’t great today, but I don’t think he did anything to deserve being singled out either.
      I agree with you to the extent that this game did not help further any Scotland player’s Lions chances.

    2. Wigglesworth was magnificent and I thought should have got MoM. It was also the same story as against England with the dummy runners causing havoc in our defense. Having said that, our scrum was seriously impressive, taking it to them on a few occasions and never looked like losing a scrum until Schalk Brits made an incredible effort to take one against the head (blast from the past!).

      Agree that Russell probably won’t go to NZ based on that performance and Maitland will be right in contention. Jonny Gray didn’t get a chance to advance his cause. Think you’re being too harsh on Hogg – when holes are being punched through your defense it’s almost impossible to look good. With a stronger base in front of him, he’ll be a game-breaker which the Lions will need.

      This is always the problem for Scottish players: they’re so often playing with poor ball on the back foot. Hopefully, that will continue to be less and less the case. Let’s not underestimate how outstanding Saracens are, with very few weaknesses.

  14. Any thoughts on the brown vs george heads up ? i didint see much to impress me from george but brown wasnt great with lineout throws

  15. A few thoughts: Glasgow well-beaten by an outstanding team, no shame in it.

    Glasgow, and Scotland, are still too vulnerable to being bullied up front by big English packs. They could really have done with Josh Strauss to carry some ball today, and they won’t have him next season.

    With hindsight Townsend maybe should have picked Price rather than Pyrgos. Could see the argument for more control before the game but you are never going to ‘out-control’ Wigglesworth and Farrell. A faster game with Price might have asked more questions of them.

    Anyone still parrotting the “Hogg can’t defend thing” surely cannot in any seriousness suggest that Chris Ashton has a chance of going on the Lions tour, as some pundits were suggesting this week. He scores lots of tries but his tackling is woeful. Seymour, by contrast, looked very solid under the high kicks, hopefully Gatland was watching.

    1. Agree there was no shame in this. Felt we weren’t bullied up front as much as we feared we’d be, at least not for the first 20 or so, hence still staying in touch. Was there so will have to check the recording but it seemed we were bossed a bit at the breakdown which made a difference. Wrigglesworth and Farrell controlled play very well, and at times, a bit like Calcutta Cup 2013, it looked as if Sarries just had more players available for a pass or offload than the Glasgow defenders could deal with.
      Scrum very solid first 50, but started to creak after that and I’ve seen referees give penalties before, for going backwards and upwards, that weren’t given against Glasgow today.
      Finn has to sort out his touch kicking. Two missed touches, including one when 14-8 down and going well – all momentum lost. FFS, Finn, reduce your target by five yards or so to ensure you get it into touch!
      Big shout out to the Glasgow supporters today. There in such numbers and so strong of voice that it felt at times like a Scotland Test match. Sarries fans I spoke to were seriously impressed by the opposition support.

      1. I think we need to remember that Sarrries aren’t title holders for nothing, and George Kruis apart that was pretty much their first string. Bit like the Pro 12 we need to gain from the experience and take it forward. Given the number of guys out, it was a fairly creditable performance.
        The Sarries wingers were quite a contrast, a flash g*t and an intellectual (in rugby terms). Think Maitland might just have half a seat on the plane. The other guy, whose name escapes me ? still can’t tackle.

  16. Like Scotland, warriors struggled against a team who ran hard and straight and used a lot of dummy runners. Russell still doesn’t have a plan B against a blitz defence and his kicking from hand for touch is ropey to say the least. Still, playing without Strauss, favaro, Johnny (for most of the game), Swinno, Sarto, Johnson and Bennett, they tried manfully against a very well drilled side. Lee Jones has really come on and should be in the Scotland side on the bench at least.

    Chiefs play a very fast offloading game with a lot of intricate back play, which Glasgow have gone slightly away from this season since losing Leone but I expect Glasgow under Rennie and O’Halloran to revert to this next season. A year older, a year wiser and who knows…

  17. Glasgow looked jaded and tired, it’s been a long season and many of the players were used and gave their all in all six nations matches. This is not an excuse for a lacklustre display but as Townshend said after the match he has taken the team to another level both on and off the pitch, now they need to move in to the next which is the task of Rennie and O’Halloran. Now Townshend needs to get Scotland on to that next level. Guys let’s celebrate a really good season for Scottish rugby. Bar Edinburgh we are moving in the right direction with more highs than lows , now when was the last time we could all say that?

  18. What is very clear this year, is the importance of having a home draw.
    As good as Saracens were yesterday, Glasgow were knocked out of the competition because of the home loss to Munster.

  19. At the enf ot ehday there’s no shame in losing to Saracens at home, but the Glasgow players let themselves down a little bit and got a harsh lesson. The missed tackle stats (I don’t have the final number to hand) were just appaling, and the missed kicks to touch you could say led (within a few phases) to 2 tries for Sarries, when we could have perhaps come away from something if we’d a set play in their 22 – talking a probable swing of around 17-24 points for those crucial errors. For the first time I have seen Russell wilt on the pitch and look haunted by mistakes that he usually brushes off in his laid back manner but the enormity of those errors got to him yesterday so hopefully they are mindset transforming going forward.

    Back Row was really underpowered, Ashe and Wilson need to lie in the gym and get musclefood deliveries coming out of the ears for the next few months.

    Big Brian was fantastic again, I hope we can keep him going forward. Gordon Reid will be a big loss. The scrum had parity and occassional dominance (except from the world class strike against the head) which was a real positive.

    Lee Jones is very under-rated, by myself included. Back line was quite quite but were stymied by a perpetually offside rush defence. Ali Price ahead of Prygos for me going forward. Immense in covering defence as well as the increased pace going forward.

    Overall, a bridge too far this season and a steep learning curve. Glasgow’s season could well be over on Saturday, in which case (hopefully with GT discussions with Rennie) the likes of Cummings, Rae, Malcolm, Smith/Wyne/Fagerson feature more and the expected summer tourists (Scotland or Lions) get some time off.

  20. Disappointing match for Glasgow and I can see 2 Scots making the Lions tour..Hogg and maybe Maitland, who can’t even get in our 23 recently.
    Criticism of Hogg very harsh, he’s not superman..what do you expect him to do when getting no decent ball. Pyrgos should never play ahead of Price, can’t understand it. Finn’s touch kicking woeful again. He needs a mentor, someone to help teach him to play the percentages. It’s not worth looking for 5 extra meters when it significantly increases the chances of the disaster of leaving the kick short of the touch line. I’d get Dan Parks in to help sort his kicking and get the back line firing.

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