Two greatest-ever wins in the one campaign? Glasgow Warriors may at last be arriving as a force in the European Rugby Champions Cup after Saturday’s 23-14 win over Racing 92 in Paris.
But such is the relentless pace of European competition that if Glasgow don’t put away the Parisians for the second time in a week at Scotstoun on Friday then Saturday’s triumph could all be for naught.
Beating the French champions on their home turf – where they had not lost in Europe for two years and only once in all competitions in 2016 – is a hugely significant achievement for Gregor Townsend and his squad. A number of key personnel came of age or even stepped into the elite status on the back of their performances at Stade Yves Manoir.
However in a few days the message might be “what have you done for us lately?” Glasgow have already hit the heights in this campaign with a thorough demolition of Leicester in their opening game – by general agreement their best European performance until Saturday – only to flop badly in their second match at Munster.
It means that despite the Paris win the Irish Red Army, who flattened Leicester on Saturday, still have the upper hand in Pool 1. They still have to play Racing twice, and by the time they go to Paris in the first weekend of the New Year for the match postponed due to the untimely loss of Anthony Foley, the Parisians might have all but conceded their bid to reach a second successive ERCC final is over and be somewhat less committed than they were on Saturday.
Oddly, it’s Glasgow’s job now to possibly ease Munster’s task by making sure that IS the case. The Warriors must win both their remaining home games, starting with Racing on Friday, preferably with the bonus point to mount some pressure on Munster, who come to Scotstoun the week after they go to Paris.
In the meantime, however, the Warriors deserve all praise going for their historic win – actually their third in France, but by some way the most significant.
It was not perfect; the lineout was a mess, mostly caused by former Warrior Leone Nakarawa when he was on the field, and there were some defensive lapses that allowed Racing two tries amongst the generally swarming defence in which Simone Favaro, Jonny Gray, Alex Dunbar and Rob Harley were immense.
Favaro in particular was in the face of Dan Carter all day, meaning the best player of this present rugby generation was subdued, and allowing Finn Russell to outshine the All Black great. Russell’s maturity as a playmaker seems to grow with every game and he also made both Glasgow tries.
His half-back partner Ali Price scored one with a smart piece of opportunistic finishing, and it’s altogether startling how quickly the young scrum-half has come of age this season; even his progress in the last three weeks.
Sat on the bench for Scotland throughout the Autumn tests, he came off it to play a fine cameo at the death against Georgia, was man of the match and a try-scorer against Munster in the PRO12, and now a major part in the club’s biggest-ever win.
But maybe the biggest step forward on Saturday was from one of Glasgow’s two acknowledged world-class players. Jonny Gray’s work-rate and tackle efficiency are already the stuff of legend, and in Paris he added proper leadership.
The one weakness in Gray’s game for his position may have been his role in mauling, an area where Glasgow have been inconsistent at best. Just over a year on from being mauled to pieces by Racing in last year’s competition, Glasgow were incredibly effective at stopping the Parisians’ attacking weapon of choice, their captain at the centre of all the disruption.
In addition, those who thought that Glasgow were crucially weakened this season by the loss of Nakarawa were answered. They’d much rather still have the Fijian, of course, but his flair looks subdued in Racing’s gameplan.
Coming off the back of three successive PRO12 defeats, this triumph maybe highlights that the Warriors are a different squad this year, the supporting cast significantly weaker when the internationals are not available.
Maybe, but the goal is different this year. A last eight place in the Champions’ Cup has always been the target for 2016/17, and now it’s definitely within reach.