GLASGOW WARRIORS forwards coach Jason O’Halloran has an emotional bond with Italy. It is where his international career with the mighty All Blacks both started and ended, with a cameo appearance off the bench during the November tour of 2000. “Genoa – 11 minutes – I tell Humphs [Warriors forwards coach and former Wales hooker Jonathan Humphreys] that’s worth about 35 Welsh caps, so I reckon I’m on a par with him,” he chuckles.
“I love Italy, I spent three or four months there, way back in 1993, in a place called Piacenza, which is south-east of Milan,” he adds. “It’s a great country and I think a lot of the lifestyle and the people. I’m looking forward to getting back there.”
And also looking forward to picking up five valuable league points to keep the pressure on Munster in the race to finish top of Conference A of the Guinness PRO14 when they take on perennial strugglers Zebre in Parma on Saturday evening. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he said. “Nothing less, I don’t want to see Jonathan Humphreys running down the touchline kicking the water bottles with five minutes to go like he did last time. Hopefully the line-out functions and we will be fine.”
O’Halloran is clearly feeling pretty jovial – and optimistic – at the moment, which is understandable because, after a rocky patch at the end of December and start of January, when the team lost four out of five game played, they seem to be back moving in the right direction again, with last Friday night’s 43-17 defeat of Connacht exhibiting all the hallmarks of Warriors at their irresistible best.
“It was another opportunity for our young guys to put their hands up [while the internationalists are away,” says O’Halloran. “I thought the energy and enthusiasm was fantastic. Looking at the numbers in support of line-breaks is always a good indicator of the mentality of the group. Every time we broke we got three or four jerseys there really quick and that was really impressive from my point of view.
“We’ve scored a lot of points during this international window, we’ve won our last three games with a young group and picked up 14 out of 15 points. We’d like to finish the job this week but having lost the Benetton we know that the Italian sides can be tough nuts to crack these days.”
Peaking at the right time
With Warriors well on track to make the PRO14 play-offs and facing a Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens on 30th March, it is just the right time for Warriors to be rediscovering their mojo, and with the injury toll easing there should be an increase in competition for places to drive up standards. Matt and Zander Fagerson, George Turner, George Horne and Chris Fusaro are some senior players who have returned to the frame during the last fortnight, while the Warriors management team are hopeful that internationalists Stuart Hogg, Ryan Wilson and, perhaps, Huw Jones will come back into the frame by the time the Saracens game comes around.
“I couldn’t tell you about timeframes or anything like that, what I do know from experience is that oftentimes it is not a bad thing to have injuries because you then have guys at the back end of the season who are energised and really looking forward to playing rugby. Sometimes, if you play a full season, you can get towards the end, when you really need to be at your peak, but be quite worn out.”
It was after the Six Nations last season when Warriors really went off the boil, ending up losing five out of their last seven matches of the season, including their play-off semi-final at home to Scarlets, which brought a disappointingly early curtain down on a PRO14 campaign which had started with huge promise.
The general consensus is that Warriors’ sizeable Scotland contingent struggled to raise themselves again after the emotional and physical blast of the Six Nations.
“I guess the key thing for us is that we ensure we maintain communication with them about individual things we want them to do, while making sure they understand our structures,” suggests O’Halloran. “One of the most awkward things for Scottish boys coming back to Glasgow is that we play a lot of the same structures – obviously, as Gregor Townsend was here [before taking the Scotland head coach job] – but the names are a bit different. A ‘Blue’ call could be a ‘Red’ or a ‘Red’ could be a ‘Blue’ and so on.
“So, it’s just about making sure that they switch back on to the calling system, that’s the most important thing, because if you know your job inside out then you bring the physicality you need.”
Plenty to play for
O’Halloran added that the poor ending to the season might also have had something to do with complacency after qualifying for the play-offs so early, which meant they played practically no meaningful rugby from mid-January onwards.
“There’s more pressure on us this year because we’re still fighting away with Munster [in the PRO14] and that will continue through the last five round-robin games,” he reasons. “I think that will be good for us.”
Warriors also have that Saracens game to keep their senses sharp. They have already played the English champions twice in the pool stage of Europe this season and come up short on both occasions. It is hard to see them upsetting the applecart at the third time of asking, but O’Halloran says he is encouraged by how competitive the game was when the two sides met at Allianz Park in mid-January.
“We took a lot out of the Saracens game,” he concludes. “It taught us a lot about the physical element and what was required there. I think that having them again is going to be good for us to get a barometer of where we are at.”