They're all groups of death now says Glasgow coach Mike Blair
When it comes to rugby’s European Champions Cup, the well-worn term could, to those so inclined, be bandied around with abandon, such is the depth of quality in the elite 20-club competition.
With only the five pool winners and three best runners-up making it to the knock-out phase, the tournament is renowned for arduous intensity but, even by its own brutal standards, Glasgow Warriors have been handed a draw of devilish difficulty.
Pool 3 contains the champions of England, the current leaders of the French Top 14 [and Guinness Pro14 in the shape of themselves], with two-time European champions thrown in for good measure.
When assistant coach Mike Blair surveys a tantalising section containing Exeter, who are first up for Glasgow down in Devon on Saturday, Vern Cotter’s Montpellier and old rivals Leinster, he accepts it is particularly tough but expects nothing less in this competition.
“We used to talk about the ‘group of death’ and stuff, but they’re all groups of death now,” said the former Scotland scrum-half, who is skills coach with both the Warriors and national squad.
“There are at least three teams in every pool that, if they won the thing you wouldn’t turn your nose up. So, it’s really competitive and we talk about it in the Six Nations as well, the momentum and the first game and getting a place higher up the group to kick things off and that’s certainly our focus against Exeter.”
The nature of the test is born out by the fact that Glasgow, for all their success in the past five or six years, only finally managed to make it out of a group for the first time last season before losing to eventual champions Saracens in the quarter-finals.
“It’s about consistency of performance,” said Blair. “Traditionally, you’d say win your home games and get a win away from home and some bonus points, but I don’t think you can make it as simple as that because there are French teams now travelling a little bit better than they have done, probably with more overseas players coming in, so it’s consistency of performance and hopefully we’ll get that.”
Blair has experience of success in the competition when Edinburgh made a stunning charge to the semi-finals of the then Heineken Cup in 2012. His successor as Scotland skipper, Greig Laidlaw, played outside him at stand-off in the famous quarter-final win over Toulouse at Murrayfield before they lost narrowly to Ulster in a Dublin semi-final.
“We’d had a pretty poor year in the league. It was a bizarre campaign,” reflected Blair. “We were losing to Racing by 25 points [in the group stage]. I was on the bench and I came on at half-time which was, of course, nothing to do with the fact that we then scored 27 unanswered points!.
“No, it was crazy. We beat Racing with a last-minute Phil Godman drop goal. We got a bonus point against London Irish with pretty much a last- minute play. We’d gone into it without a huge amount of confidence and it just clicked. It’s probably the opposite this time around when we [Glasgow] have had a really good run into this game.”
Blair stayed back to help hold the fort at Scotstoun when the team were in South Africa last weekend, edging the Cheetahs in a titanic tussle, and accepts that it doesn’t get any easier this week against the buccaneering Aviva Premiership champions, who are on a long winning streak at their Sandy Park home.
“I think this week will be a step up. Exeter are a fantastic side,” said Blair. “They’re 11 in a row at home. I’ve been there playing with Newcastle. It’s a great atmosphere and there is a belief there that they win their home games, so it will be a really big challenge. But we’ve shown enough this season to know we can put our best foot forward and really challenge these guys.”
Blair said that Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg, pictured, remains on course for an imminent return but praised Ruaridh Jackson who is in line for a seventh successive appearance in the No 15 jersey at the start of his second stint at Scotstoun. The 85-times capped former Edinburgh man also spoke in glowing terms of stand-off Finn Russell, who is in a rich vein of form.
“Stuart Hogg is touch and go with his availability,” said the coach. “We’ll speak to the specialists and the physios about how he’s going to be, but he’s not going to be far off in the next couple of weeks or so certainly. Ruaridh’s been fantastic. You talk about consistency of team performance, consistency of individual performance, he’s been excellent. It’s not a position he’s massively familiar with. He’s obviously played it a bit more over the last couple of seasons, but he’s doing a great job leadership wise, communication wise and actually what he’s putting out on the pitch, so he’s been excellent.
“Finn’s changed a bit I’d say over the last year or so. You see more from him in a group environment. I think where initially he’d lead in a quieter way and maybe have a quiet word here or there, I’ve seen a lot more from him in huddles and team meetings and what have you, so he’s really taking ownership of that role and he’s one of our leaders for the attack group. He’s really stepped up this year, great to work with and he’s playing some great rugby as well.
“He loves a challenge, Finn. He likes to see how good he is, how good he can be. Big games, talking about Leicester away last year, the Racing games, those were playing against world-class players, so that is a challenge to see ‘how good am I against Dan Carter,’ and I think this is another massive challenge for him as well and he’ll be really looking forward to it.”