Head coach Dave Rennie will almost certainly leave Glasgow Warriors at the end of this season, most likely to take charge of Australia, although he has also been linked with the New Zealand and Italy jobs. His legacy in Scotland will depend almost entirely on how his team fares in this European Champions Cup campaign, which kicks-off when Sale Sharks visit Scotstoun tomorrow afternoon.
Warriors may have only won the PR014 once, back in 2015 [it was actually called the PRO12 back in those days], but they have got used to being perennial contenders, generally occupying one of the top two spots in the table during the regular season and usually making an appearance in the play-offs. They are quite comfortable with their position as a significant force in that competition.
However, the team’s failure to show themselves as being truly competitive in Europe has become a weight around their neck. They might have made the quarter-finals last year but the one-sidedness of their demolition at the hands of eventual champions Saracens was a painful demonstration of their true standing in European rugby’s flagship club competition.
The suspicion is that Warriors are flat-track bullies. Their all-court style is compelling when up against second tier teams, but when they take on the big guns they simply don’t have the firepower to get on the front foot, and their callow backline is susceptible to being pressurised into making costly errors as they attempt to ‘pull rabbits out of their backsides’, as Rennie not-so-euphemistically put it at one point last season.
So, what has changed to suggest this campaign might be any different for Rennie’s men? Not a lot, on the face of it.
In terms of personnel, they have lost Stuart Hogg to Exeter Chiefs, which, coming hard on the heels of Finn Russell’s departure to Racing 92 the year before and Leone Nakarawa to the same Parisian outfit in 2016, paints a fairly bleak picture of the club as a feeder to the big beasts in England and France – especially as the gaps left in the squad have been filled internally.
The early weeks of this season certainly didn’t offer much by way of encouragement, with Rennie’s side losing three of their first four league games, before the return of Warriors’ sizable international contingent had a galvanising effect, leading to a 50-0 win at home to an admittedly woeful Southern Kings a fortnight ago, which was backed up with another convincing 7-31 win away to Zebre last weekend.
But let’s not kid ourselves, these are the two worst teams in the league, and Sharks on Saturday followed by Hogg’s Exeter Chiefs seven days later will present a far stiffer test of Warriors’ credentials. Much will depend on whether this is the year that a handful of younger players come of age.
The shaft of light from Scotland’s generally hapless World Cup campaign was the obvious growth in maturity of several youngsters who went to Japan as back-up and came home having asserted themselves as the men to spearhead the national team’s next Six Nations campaign.
Among that number is half-backs Adam Hastings and George Horne. Both are precocious talents who have struggled in the past to shelve their natural lust for adventure in order to play a more percentages orientated game when the tide is against them, but Warriors attack coach Jason O’Halloran believes that they now have a better feel for when to stick and when to twist.
“Adam and George have been pivotal [since their return] – really enthusiastic and accurate – and brought a lot of tempo to our game which was perhaps lacking earlier in the season,” he said earlier this week, before focusing his praise on Hastings’ kicking game.
“I know twith Gregor Townsend at Scotland they feel like kicking is an important part of the repertoire when you are a team that is known for moving the ball a lot, and I think Adam’s tactical control through his kicking game has been a lot improved since he’s come back.
“There have been one or two that went astray, but I think the thought process around where to kick has been excellent, which is crucial because we can’t be a team which just pings the ball around east to west all day long. If we do that, we are going to get knocked over and that’s going to put pressure on ourselves, so we’ve got to manage that middle third effectively, which he’s done really well.”
Second-row Scott Cummings is another young Warrior who had a big World Cup. His work-rate matches Jonny Gray, but he is far more dynamic on the ball and in the tackle, which is something Glasgow have been desperately short of in recent years. Rennie will be looking to him to play a leading role in generating momentum up front.
With 25 Scotland caps to his name since his international debut back in 2016, Zander Fagerson is hardly a new face, but at the age of 23 he is still a baby by tight-head prop standards.
He missed almost all of last season with an ankle injury and Glasgow’s chances in this campaign could well hinge on whether he can stay fit and hold his own at set-piece time.
Winning the tournament is the stated goal but we all know that is not going to happen. Realistically, another quarter-final appearance from a tricky but not deadly pool [which also includes La Rochelle, who are currently ninth on the French Top14] would represent pass marks for Rennie in his final season, so long as the team are competitive in that last eight match.
If they progress beyond that then the New Zealander can move on to his next job knowing that he has left the club in a far better place than he found it. But in truth, that seems unlikely.