GLASGOW WARRIORS are heading into the home straight of this Guinness PRO14 campaign with as close to a full-strength squad as defence coach Kenny Murray can recall the club ever having at this stage of the season.
The Scotstoun men have encountered more than their fair share of challenges this year in terms of player availability, with a raft of frontline players missing sizable chunks of the campaign through either injury or suspension, including: prop Oli Kebble; hookers Fraser Brown, George Turner and Pat MacArthur; second-rows Scott Cummings, Brian Alainu’uese and Tim Swinson; back-rowers Callum Gibbons and Adam Ashe; centres Alex Dunbar, Sam Johnson and Richie Vernon; and wingers Lelia Masaga, Leonardo Sarto and Rory Hughes.
While that has presented head coach Dave Rennie with a few selection conundrums along the way, Murray believes that the longer-term benefit to the squad of having been forced to give significant amounts of game time to emerging talent – such as Jamie Bhatti, Matt Fagerson and Matt Smith – will now become evident during the final five league games of the regular season and into the play-offs.
“I think we’re in as good a position now, at this stage of the season, as we have been in all the time I’ve been here,” said Murray, who joined the club in the summer of 2013.
“We’ve got Pat MacArthur out [until the end of the season] and Leo Sarto’s had an operation, but other than that every other player who’s been out is back. There will obviously be a few knocks now and again, but there’s nothing major at the moment. So, we’re anticipating going into this final run-in with pretty much as strong a squad as we’ve had, which is great.”
In a healthy position
The Warriors just about managed pass marks from their three games during the Six Nations window – picking up a draw away to the Dragons, a win at home to the Toyota Cheetahs and then a defeat away to Munster – which reflects poorly when compared to Edinburgh’s rip-roaring recent form, but still leaved them two positive results away from finishing the season top of Conference A in the PRO 14 (which will give them a favourable draw in the play-offs).
Now, with the club’s sizable international contingent coming back into the fold, Murray is confident that competition for places will drive standards up.
“Guys are fighting for positions so we’ll expect it to ramp up a wee bit. We need to manage that as coaches, but I’m looking forward to training the next four weeks,” he explained.
“We’ve got five games now to the play-offs and the big thing for us is that we’re going to have guys in every game we play from now on fighting for places, because nobody’s going to be guaranteed a position in the team.”
“You look at all the guys who have played well for Scotland, they know coming back in here that there’s a lot of other players really pushing to get their spot. For example, at scrum-half, Henry [Pyrgos] and Ali [Price] have been away with Scotland, but George Horne’s been playing well regularly for us and is one of the top try scorers in the league.
“Everyone realises that performances in the next four games is going to be critical if you want to be involved in those play-off stages.”
The choice in the back-three has also been boosted by the return to the club of winger DTH van der Merwe, who is available to play immediately, having made a mid-season switch from Newcastle Falcons last week.
“It’s great to have him back in. He trained last week and looked really sharp. He’s exactly what he was when he left – a really good ball carrier, quick on his feet and sharp around the pitch as well. For the run-in, we’re going to need our X-factor players, and he’s a guy who has that in abundance. He’ll be in contention for this weekend. He’s fit and ready to play,” said Murray.
Big game Zebre
In truth, that competition for places across the whole squad is not going to go through the roof immediately, with several front-line Scotland players set to be rested against Zebre on Friday.
“We’ll manage it, so some guys will definitely be unavailable depending on who’s had a lot of game time, and some guys maybe didn’t get as much so we’ve got an opportunity to bring them back in,” said Murray.
“We’ve obviously got the following week when we don’t have a game, so we’ve got an opportunity to rest guys a bit more that week. So, we will look to have a few involved this week, but not all of them, obviously. I can’t say which ones won’t, but you could probably guess for yourself, to be fair.”
The most obvious candidates to be rested are Bhatti, Jonny Gray, Ryan Wilson, Ali Price, Finn Russell, Pete Horne, Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg, who all played in every match during the Six Nations; while Tommy Seymour missed only the Ireland game through injury.
Despite those absences, the Warriors should have enough firepower to pick up a win against Zebre, although Murray added that they will not be taking the task lightly.
“They’re a lot better team than they have been in recent years,” he reasoned. “Both Italian sides this year have won games that they wouldn’t have won two or three years ago. When we played them over there they scored three tries against us, one from a turnover and the other two showing they are really good when they get into your 22, where they’re really physical.
“They’ve got some decent players who’ll cause us problems if we don’t defend well. Carlo Canna’s a sharp 10, he’s got a decent running game and likes a show-and-go. They’ve got a pretty abrasive forward pack, so we know what’s coming when we play them,” he added.
Murray also name-checked livewire full-back Matteo Minozzi, who was one of the breakthrough stars of the Six Nations. “I think all the Italian boys will come back in for Zebre on Friday,” he speculated.
“The incentive for us is that we now pretty much know what we have to do,” Murray concluded. “Edinburgh did us a massive favour at the weekend by beating Munster, so we know that 10 points will pretty much guarantee top spot because we’re 11 points ahead and Munster can only get 20 out of their remaining four games. The starting point for that is this game at the weekend.”