Last season, as the Pro14 reached its climax, a blueprint for beating Glasgow Warriors became brutally evident.
Bludgeon them up front. Maul them into oblivion. Harry their flair players into forcing things and coughing up the ball. Leinster showed the way to conquer Glasgow with the most bruising Champions Cup beating in October, and gradually, others followed suit.
This Warriors team had so much panache. So much brilliance. An embarrassment of attacking riches, scores of top-class half-backs and centres, mobile forwards and rapier outside backs who could hurt you from anywhere. They bamboozled teams with the searing speed of their off-loading game rather than crippling them with the brawn of their heavy artillery.
Did they have the heft or the snarl to hold up to the sternest physical examinations?
“They attacked us up front all season, but by the end they were really going for the throat and our deficiencies were exposed. We can’t hide from that.”
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Warriors’ attack fizzed under Gregor Townsend and they upped the tempo even more in Dave Rennie’s first season in charge. They scored a heap of truly mesmeric tries; coast-to-coast stunners have become staple fare at Scotstoun.
The problem of playing with such abandon is that the risk of turning the ball over grows. Too often, Glasgow gave it some air without first summoning the bruisers to punch a hole or two. Rennie, even in victory, would warn of the perils of “going around teams before we go through them”.
If you turn the ball over frequently, as Glasgow did, you have to defend more. And the more you defend, the more likely you are to concede points. Barring one tremendous win over Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow’s European campaign was a damp squib. After cantering to the top of Pro14 Conference A with rounds to spare, their semi-final loss to Scarlets ended the season on a bitterly anticlimactic note.
The challenge is there for Warriors this year – when the heat is on in the league and in Europe, when the behemoths of England and France come calling and the Irish provinces unleash their stars, can Glasgow handle it?
On the face of it, they will attempt to do so with essentially the same pack as last year. Only academy prospects, hooker Kevin Bryce and American international back-row Tevita Tameilau have been added to the existing pool of forwards and that has left plenty fans getting antsy.
Where is all the beef? Well, Glasgow do have muscle – the problem was that last season, an awful lot of it was on the treatment table.
Oli Kebble, Brian Alainu’uese, Adam Ashe, Greg Peterson. All monstrous specimens; all out for swathes of the campaign. Back-row Ashe managed 10 starts, the others just eight combined.
A resurgent Ashe could be the most important of the lot. Glasgow let Josh Strauss go last summer and never replaced his awesome ballast from number eight. Few can match Strauss’ ability to splinter the gain-line but Ashe gives you grunt while contributing amply to the open-field havoc Warriors are wont to wreak.
Alainu’uese and Peterson are enormous lumberers close to seven feet tall in their rugby boots, both around the 130kg mark. The perfect enforcer-style engine-room foil for Jonny Gray, Scott Cummings or Tim Swinson, all of whom excel when galloping around the paddock. Glasgow will have to wait for New Zealander Alainu’uese to return from a back injury, while Peterson, an American international, has fallen behind Gray, Cummings and Rob Harley in the pecking order.
Already, Glasgow’s scrummage looks nastier with Kebble in the front-row, particularly alongside Scotland’s Brown and Zander Fagerson. The big loosehead arrived from the Stormers last year but injuries restricted him to a measly two starts.
The signs so far about Glasgow’s physical menace are mixed. Warriors took a battering from Northampton Saints in a pre-season friendly that bore many of the hallmarks of last season’s failings. But they’re two from two in the serious stuff.
Their first Pro14 win was a crazy one-point victory at Connacht where their scrum was formidable and they overturned a nine-point deficit despite losing Adam Hastings to a sin-bin. Their second was more impressive, a rousing 25-10 triumph over Munster in which their set-piece was dominant and their defence resolute.
In typically deadpan style, Rennie took aim at some critics after the win.
“Again, the big men set the platform for us,” he said on BBC Radio Scotland.
“For some reason, we get criticised a bit around our set-piece. But as we showed again this week, a dominant scrum and an excellent line-out maul which netted us a few points.”
Glasgow know all too well where they faltered last year. They know too what people think of their pack and it irks them. They have a long way to go to shut the doubters up for good but they are starting to show signs that their rugby can be brutal as well as beautiful.
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