Glasgow Warriors may be anticipating a European Champions’ Cup quarter-final for the first time but their Guinness PRO12 campaign and a play-off place hangs in the balance.
The Warriors are at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast this afternoon knowing that another defeat during the international windows could put them in jeopardy of missing the play-offs for the first time in five years.
The club have a 13-point cushion ahead of seventh placed Cardiff Blues so European qualification for 2017-18 is not in danger, but last week’s loss to Scarlets at Scotstoun – their fourth defeat in the league there this season – dropped them to fifth with a growing gap to the top three of Munster, ospreys and Leinster.
The Scarlets defeat also means that the Warriors have lost all four games played in the international windows this season, when the top names are away with Scotland.
It’s in stark contrast to the last three seasons when Glasgow have reaped wins and points during these periods. In the three seasons from 2013 to last year, the Warriors won 13 games and lost just six with one draw during the autumn and spring international windows.
The club got a boost ahead of their visit to take on Ulster with Peter Horne returning to stand-off after missing three months with an ankle injury.
The Scotland international and former Howe of Fife player, who also plays at centre, has signed a contract extension that will keep him at Scotstoun for another three years.
Gregor Townsend described Horne, who has played 106 times for Glasgow scoring 15 tries and has won 23 caps for Scotland, as “a player who epitomises what it means to be a Warrior”.
Horne himself said that his decision was made easy when he saw what the future was for the club with Townsend moving on to the Scotland job at the end of the current season.
“When the club came to me it was really a no-brainer,” he said. “We’re going places, which was summed up this year with us making the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals for the first time.
“As soon as we signed up Dave Rennie as head coach for next season it made it an easy decision. When his name was mentioned it filled me with excitement as I’ve watched a lot of Super Rugby and the Chiefs are a great team. He plays a brilliant brand of rugby and it seems like all the players really play for him.
“I’m hungry to get better as a player and all the boys here are hungry to do better. I feel like I’ve played a big part over the last seven or eight years and it’s a journey I want to continue.”
Horne’s versatility and ability as a playmaker have been key elements in Glasgow play-off runs in recent season and he was a member of the side that won the PRO12 at the Kingspan two years ago.
It’s a strong Warriors side with Henry Pyrgos skippering in partnership with Horne at half-back, and on-loan signing Brandon Thomson will go into the team after just one game in Scotland playing for Stirling County last week, filling in for the injured Peter Murchie at full-back.
Rob Harley, Mark Bennett and Simone Favaro have been released from Six Nations duties to return to action. It will be Favaro’s first game for the Warriors for a month.
Namibian second row Tjiuee Uanivi has also recovered from a long-term shoulder injury and is among the replacements.
The Warriors injury list has reduced with Sam Johnson (ankle), Pat MacArthur (head) and Murchie (hamstring) new additions but likely to be unavailable only for short spells. Only Greg Peterson and Leonardo Sarto are long-term absentees, although they were joined by Josh Strauss from the Scotland camp yesterday as he was ruled out of the rest of the Six Nations.
Glasgow team (vs Ulster, Guinness PRO12, Kingspan Stadium, ko 3pm, live on Sky Sports): B Thomson; L Jones, M Bennett, N Grigg, S Lamont; P Horne, H Pyrgos (capt); A Allan, J Malcolm, S Puafisi; B Alainu’uese, S Cummings; R Harley, S Favaro, A Ashe.
Replacements: C Flynn, J Bhatti, D Rae, T Uanivi, L Wynne, G Hart, R Vernon, R Hughes.