Glasgow Warriors have learned the lessons from last year’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final flop, but the biggest changes to this year is simple continuity and results, believes head coach Dave Rennie.
The Warriors host Ulster tonight in the 2019 semi-final on the back of eight successive league wins, the last seven with a try bonus point. Over the same stretch coming into last year’s semi with Scarlets, they’d won just three of eight, and somewhat predictably lost in comprehensive fashion by 28-13.
“What has helped us from a coaching perspective is that we were having lots of discussions about what our best team was last year because we weren’t playing very well, and some individuals weren’t playing very well,” said Rennie.
“We’ve had a pretty steady group and put a big chunk of this team out week after week over the last month. From a combination point of view I think we’re really solid. At this time of year you want your best players on the field and we have a pretty full complement to pick from.”
Much has been made of the way the Warriors have responded to the defeat to Saracens in the European Cup – the newly crowned European champions are the only team to beat them since the first week in January – but Rennie believes that was a simple blip.
“Outside of that performance over the last two or three months we’ve gone really well,” he said. “I’ve always said that you want to be playing your best footy at the time when it counts the most.
“We play a lot of rugby without our international boys, so there’s a big chunk of men who have done a great job for us in a lot of games during the international windows to put us in this position.
“As a squad I think we’re in a good place, and the carrot is to still be around next week. We’re confident, but we know we have to play well.”
Rennie has made two changes from the team that beat Edinburgh two weeks ago, bringing back club captain Callum Gibbins, and the decision to restore DTH van der Merwe despite being missed since February was made easier by a knee knock to Niko Matawalu.
“We’ve added a little bit of firepower since last year, but I think we’ve just had an extra year together, we’re a little bit older,” continued Rennie.
“We’ve got a lot of key players in form. “Stuart Hogg’s been fantastic, we’ve seen the best of him in the last few weeks, haven’t we?
“He’s a real spark, isn’t he? He probably didn’t play an enormous amount of footy for us in my first 18 months here, but he’s just really excited he’s been able to string a lot of games together. He’s playing well, which augurs well for Scotland going into a World Cup.”
Rennie wouldn’t be drawn into the controversy of Irishman John Lacey being handed refereeing duties, saying that as the decision wasn’t in the Warriors’ control it was “irrelevant”.
Non-neutral refs in the PRO14 have been common in the past, but with new blood and South African refs means introduced the practice has been considerably reduced.
Lacey will actually be the first non-neutral ref Glasgow have seen this season, although they’ve had him in two games, both at home and won, against Welsh opposition.
The veteran whistler, who also reffed the semi-final against Scarlets last year, is retiring at the end of the season and this game at Scotstoun is likely to be his last.
“In the end, the way it works is that you have a referee and two assistants who are generally guys they work with what and they trust,” said Rennie. “Obviously, it has been decided that John Lacey is number two or three in the rankings so he gets a semi and the guys he has been working with come with him.
“We just have to trust that process and get on with it. Maybe it could have been Nigel Owens and a Welsh group, perhaps, but I guess he refereed a quarter-final and if he’s No 1 they’ve probably got him down for the final.
“We haven’t even discussed it with our players. John Lacey is very experienced, he’s got good men on the sideline who he trusts, so that should help him.
“We’ve just got to control what we can control. This is about our performance – there will be no talk about who’s refereeing.”
Glasgow (vs Ulster, Guinness PRO14 play-off semi-final, Scotstoun Stadium, kick off 7.35 pm, live on Premier Sports) Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Kyle Steyn, Sam Johnson, DTH van der Merwe; Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Jamie Bhatti, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson; Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray; Rob Harley, Callum Gibbins (capt), Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: Grant Stewart, Oli Kebble, D’Arcy Rae, Ryan Wilson, Tom Gordon, George Horne, Pete Horne, Huw Jones.