GLASGOW WARRIORS may not have set the heather alight with player recruitment over the summer, but head coach Dave Rennie reckons his squad is in pretty good shape to kick-on this season after a 2017-18 campaign which ultimately failed to deliver on the promise of the opening few months.
The New Zealander pointed out that a number of players who missed large chunks of last season through injury – such as Adam Ashe, Brian Alainu’uese, Oli Kebble, Alex Dunbar, Lelia Masaga and Rory Hughes – now look in good shape to be key men this time round.
He also highlighted that the Warriors were very active in recruitment last summer with several players coming in on two-year contracts, which has had an inevitable impact on the club’s spending power this summer; and that attracting top flight players in a World Cup year is problematic.
Warriors have named a 30-man squad for the Famous Grouse Pre-Season Challenge against English Premiership outfit Harlequins, to be played in a custom-built venue at North Inch public park in Perth on Saturday afternoon.
One of the club’s few high-profile summer signings in Australian scrum-half Nick Frisby will start against Harlequins.
However, number eight David Tameilau, recruited from the USA, has had visa issues which meant he only arrived this week and will not be part of the team until he is up to speed.
“We’re not going to rush him,” explained Rennie. “He’s only just arrived so he’s not going to play in the early stages until we get him in the sort of condition we need him in to be effective.
“It would have been ideal if he was here a month ago. He is skilful and explosive, but we want to make sure he is lean and good to go. We want him to give us repeated effort, so we won’t be throwing him in too early. It won’t happen in the first couple weeks [of the season].”
One notable absentee from last year’s squad will be talismanic stand-off Finn Russell, who has joined Racing 92 in Paris. Adam Hastings reinforced his credentials as the heir apparent on tour with Scotland during the summer and Rennie clearly believes that, while the youngster is not yet the finished article, he is ready to step up to the plate as the team’s chief playmaker.
“I think he has certain parts of his game that he needs to work on, he is green and has a lot to learn,” said Rennie. “But, he is incredibly competitive, has a great skill-set and is very fit. He gets in position quickly and he is a real talker and organiser.
“If I compare him to Finn, I think his urgency to get in position is superior, he is a good talker and he has a lot of confidence to poke people in the chest and what have you.
“He has a very good kicking game and when he plays for us he puts us in good parts of the field. I think it was great that he had a couple of runs for Scotland in the summer. I think with him Pete Horne and Brandon Thomson, plus Jacko [Ruaridh Jackson] perhaps able to fill in, we are well covered at 10.”
Thomson gets a chance to start this weekend with Hastings ready to make an impact as a replacement.
Frisby to stake his claim
Meanwhile, Frisby will stake a claim for the scrum-half slot, with academy prospect Kaleem Barretto on the bench. George Horne, who ended last season as the man in possession of the number nine jersey, has been given some time off after his heroics on Scotland’s summer tour; while Ali Price has picked up a minor knock which means he must wait to get his career back on track after a disappointing end to last season – although Rennie stressed that he has been very pleased with the way 25-year-old has responded to a pretty tough learning curve.
“Ali has really impressed since he came back in. After the Six Nations, he came back in overweight, heavy,” explained Rennie. “His whole game is about his speed to the breakdown and his ability to threaten – but he came back and he was sluggish.
“George and Henry [Pyrgos] were then picked ahead of him and Ali has learnt a lot from that. We won’t pick on reputation. He got a slight injury away with Scotland but he should be back for close to the first round of league games and he is looking sharp.”
When asked why Price had been sluggish after the Six Nations, Rennie explained: “He was on the bench a lot, he will have learnt a lot, there was a bit of discipline involved.”
The big question remains as to whether essentially the same squad can develop from the flat-track bullies who swept all before them in the opening months of last season to a team capable of going toe-to-toe with the cream of Europe in the games that really matter.
Getting the basics right
For Rennie, the solution to that conundrum lies in the team’s ability to match their undoubted ambition and courage with the ability to play the percentages when required.
“I just think we made far too many errors [last season]. We turned over too much ball. Some of that is skill-set under pressure and some of that is patience to build,” he said. “So, that’s an area we have put a lot of time into – our catch-pass has to be better under pressure.
“We still want to play and challenge teams, but if you look Leinster, who were the benchmark in both comps [the European Champions Cup and the PRO14], it was their ability to hang onto the ball for long periods and build pressure – to force errors or win penalties – where they are pretty impressive. So, that’s an area we’ve got to be better.
“Even our handling is streets ahead of where it was, we’ve put so much time into it. But we want to be better with regard to our carry-and-clean to get quicker ball – we made good strides there last year, but against the best sides in this comp we need to be better.
“We stuttered our way into the play-offs last year and we were pretty disappointing from an intensity point of view. So, we’ve looked at everything we’ve done from a coaching perspective [because] when you play without the sort of intensity required in a big game like that then you can’t just look at the players, you’ve got to look at how you prepared them. We were really happy with our preparation leading in but maybe there was too much information and maybe we were cluttered.
“We are just making sure that we nail everything early and we become really familiar with what we are trying to do – that the nuts and bolts with regards to the basics of our game are really strong.
“[And] we put a lot of time into our scrum and our maul – Jonathan Humphreys is doing a great job there – so we’ll see. We got off to a flyer last year and won a hell of a lot of games in a row, but as I mentioned then: it is about being the best team in the comp at the end, not at the beginning.
“We still want to win, and we still want to play well, but we’ve got to make sure that we are improving quickly and learning.”
Robbie Nairn, who had two years in the Harlequins academy seet-up between 2015 and 2017, before moving back to Scotland and picking up a full pro contract with the Warriors in June, is on the wing against his old club; while Currie Chieftains’ summer recruit Joe Reynolds is on the bench, having impressed when training full-time with the pro team whilst on holiday from his day job as a PE teacher.
Glasgow Warriors team to play Harlequins in the Famous Grouse Pre-Season Challenge at North Inch, Perth – Saturday 18 August, 2pm –
15. Rory Hughes
14. Robbie Nairn
13. Sam Johnson
12. Paddy Kelly
11. Lelia Masaga
10. Brandon Thomson
9. Nick Frisby
1. Oli Kebble
2. James Malcolm
3. D’Arcy Rae
4. Scott Cummings
5. Jonny Gray
6. Bruce Flockhart
7. Chris Fusaro
8. Matt Smith
Kevin Bryce, Grant Stewart, Alex Allan, Adam Nicol, Greg Peterson, Rob Harley, Thomas Gordon, Kaleem Baretto, Adam Hastings, Ratu Tagive, Stafford McDowell, Alex Dunbar, Niko Matawalu, Joe Reynolds and Ruaridh Jackson