Glasgow Warriors will have to improve “10 to 20 per cent across the board” to get into a position to win tonight’s Guinness PRO12 play-off semi-final against in Galway, believes head coach Gregor Townsend.
The arch-tinkerer has been at it again with his selection, unsurprisingly restoring fit-again Henry Pyrgos to the starting line-up for Galway and trusting in 20-year-old Zander Fagerson to anchor the scrum.
But there’s a major shock for the Warriors faithful, including the 500 travelling to Galway for the game with fan favourite Rob Harley, for many the heart and soul of the club, not even on the bench.
Instead Simone Favaro comes in as a more specialised open-side, moving Ryan Wilson to Harley’s blindside role, with Fagerson replacing the suspended Sila Puafisi.
As well as Mark Bennett as expected replacing the injured Alex Dunbar as he did two weeks ago and bringing back Pyrgos for Ali Price, the coach has restored veteran Sean Lamont to the wing in place of Lee Jones.
“They’re all unlucky, Rob in particular is one of our most consistent and fearless players, but in my opinion this is just a better blend for this game,” said Townsend of his five changes, in stark contrast to opposite number Pat Lam, who has brought in blindside Eoin McKeon in his only change to the team that won 14-7 at the Sportsground two weeks ago.
“10 to 20 per cent improvement in a number of areas for the last game should see us get into a winning position,” said Townsend. “We learned a lot about ourselves then, how to handle certain situations and how we might do certain things differently tactically with a given scoreline and what the opposition might be doing.
“We learned about how Connacht approach the game from an attacking point of view and how they reacted to the way we defended and also what they wanted to do with their defence to put us under pressure.
“They’ll change a couple of things I expect but at least we have worked on the things we should have done better over there last time.”
Pyrgos’ return could be a key not just in what he brings in terms of his ball skills, added the coach.
“As an individual it is great having him there but from a team perspective he offers so much, he is one of our key leaders especially in the tactical side of it,” continued Townsend.
“We saw that in the Scarlets game when he and Ryan Wilson were such a help to Jonny in his captaincy. He did pick up an injury in that game and it is great to have him back.”
Fagerson has arguably played in a bigger game this year in his Scotland debut as a replacement in the Calcutta Cup, but Townsend has great faith in the young Dundee-born tighthead th warriors have carefully nurtured through the season.
“I reckon this is his biggest test so far,” said the coach. “Starting the semi-final of the PRO12 as a 20-year-old is great for him.
“He’s trained really well and his main job is set-piece, getting his roles right there and making sure we have dominance at the scrum.
“But it’s also from what he can bring outside of that, his ball-carrying ability, and also his tackle and post tackle work is excellent.”
The stat of the semis remains that no side has ever won away from home – at least until last night in Dublin – but Townsend thinks that will happen soon and probably should have already.
“We lost by just two points at Leinster three years ago, won by a point against Munster two years ago and won by two points against Ulster last year,” he pointed out. “Ospreys scored a try that would have beaten Munster last year but it was chalked off.
“The games are always tight and it’s testament to what a competitive league we have. The best team will win the semi-finals this year, regardless of whether they are home or away.”
Townsend makes a few notable changes to his bench, notably including Ryan Grant, absent injured for much of the second half of the season, including Adam Ashe instead of Harley and recalling Duncan Weir and wrecking ball Taqele Naiyaravoro.
Team: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Mark Bennett, Peter Horne, Sean Lamont; Finn Russell, Henry Pyrgos; Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson; Leone Nakarawa, Jonny Gray (Capt); Ryan Wilson, Simone Favaro, Josh Strauss.
Replacements: Pat MacArthur, Ryan Grant, D’Arcy Rae, Tim Swinson, Adam Ashe, Grayson Hart, Duncan Weir, Taqele Naiyaravoro.