WHEN Glasgow became PRO12 champions back in 2015, it was the culmination of years of steady progress. A young but gradually maturing side under the leadership of Gregor Townsend, the Warriors had twice been beaten semi-finalists, and then runners-up, before eventually triumphing in the final itself.
Their European record, by contrast, shows no such incremental improvement. They took long enough to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, and when they did get there, two seasons ago, they were soundly beaten by Saracens. Last season the Warriors finished bottom of their pool, so to date, that 38-13 reverse in April 2017 remains their only involvement in the last eight.
The Champions Cup is a far tougher competition than what is now the PRO14, of course, and it would be foolish to expect Glasgow to graduate automatically from league winners to European contenders. Nonetheless, there is a lingering feeling of frustration about their inability to make an impact on the biggest stage, with the players themselves believing they have not done themselves justice when it mattered most.
Those players may not want to be reminded in too much detail of that defeat at Allianz Park 18 months ago, but Fraser Brown, for one, believes there are important lessons to be drawn from it as the squad prepare to welcome Saracens to Scotstoun on Sunday for the first game in this year’s pool stages. “I remember it pretty well – not just the game, but the whole week in general,” the hooker recalled. “I think we probably got our build-up a little bit wrong – we focused a bit too much on them and not ourselves.
“We do our due diligence on teams, scouting them properly and getting good analysis, but it’s really important this week that we focus on ourselves, our set piece, our defence and how we can unlock the Sarries defence with our attack.
“The set piece will be a big battleground. They’ve got a strong lineout and a strong lineout drive defensively from our point of view, but it’s important to make sure our scrum and lineout function properly and give us the ball to allow us to move them around, keep possession and play in their areas of the pitch.
“Sarries are one of the top teams in Europe and have shown that plenty times over the last few years. I think they’re unbeaten in the league this year, scoring a lot of points as well. A lot of their go forward comes down to big ball-carriers – Vunipola, Itoje, Rhodes – and we can’t get round the fact they’re a very good side.
“But at the same time we’ve got lots of threats in our team, and a good defence. So we’ve just got to look to areas we can target, where we feel we can put pressure on them in attack and defence and try to get them out of their comfort zone. Try to force them into mistakes and most importantly try and keep the ball when we have it.”
Glasgow coach Dave Rennie has talked of Saracens’ willingness to make progress inch by inch when they are in possession, and their mastery of that multi-phase trundle can drain opponents both physically and mentally. All the more vital, then, that the Warriors do what they can to force turnovers at the more contestable moments such as lineouts. “Defensively it’s not just stopping the drive, it’s the defensive lineout and putting pressure on there,” Brown emphasised. “[Ryan] Wilson, Jonny [Gray], Bob Harley put in a lot of work there, and we’ve got one of the top lineout defences in the league at the minute, so that’s an area we’ll look to take on.
“We’ve made pretty good strides from where we were last year, both attack and defence. We’ve had a couple of disappointments when our drill hasn’t been great, mostly in attack, but we’ve had a big focus on training through the week to push up standards wherever possible and that has a knock-on effect at the weekend. If you drive that from the start of the week and make sure we’re really efficient there then come game day we’re operating with a little, tiny margin of error – and that’s where we want to be.”
The Warriors only one won of their half-dozen pool games last year, and that one came far too late – at Scotstoun in game six, when they got the better of Exeter. The campaign had begun with a defeat in the West Country, but the really damaging blow was in the first home game, when eventual champions Leinster came to Scotstoun and won 34-18. Glasgow lost at home in the next round too, to Montpellier, and their defeat a week later in France merely confirmed the fact that their cup campaign was over by Christmas.
That series of games was especially anti-climactic as the team had been doing so well in the PRO14, putting together a long unbeaten run that would all but guarantee them a home semi-final months before the end of the regular season. The contrast between the two competitions is not lost on Brown, who has learned the hard way that while a decent team can underperform in the league and yet scrape through a few games, if they do the same in Europe they are likely to be severely punished.
“In our group games last year we were still adjusting as a squad. We came up against three really good teams last year – and we will this year – but this is like international rugby in a sense. You can’t afford to drop the performance by even a couple of percentage points, because other teams will exploit that and punish you for it.
“In the league you can get away sometimes with not being 100 per cent and not on the money, but you do that in Europe at your peril. Teams are good enough and clinical enough to really take advantage.
“That’s what it was last year. We had games where our set piece didn’t function particularly well and that meant we played a lot of the game without the ball. It’s hard to play 80 minutes of rugby defending like that. It’s a key area we’ve focused on this year and how we win the ball, how we look after it and put teams under pressure.
“Other than two years ago we haven’t had very much of an impact in Europe. And we can perform as well as we can in the league and get to semi-finals and finals, but if you want to be taken seriously on a European stage you have to perform well in Europe. And that can’t just be a one-off, getting to one quarter-final. It’s something we want to do again and if we have ambitions of being one of the biggest clubs in Europe you have to perform on this stage. There’s no bigger test than a first game at home against Sarries.”