Danny Wilson has set an initial target for Glasgow Warriors of finishing top of the Scottish-Italian pool in the new United Rugby Championship.
The club’s head coach would also like to see them retain the 1872 Cup and it’s fair to say the twin aims are inter-linked.
The URC kicks off on Friday for Glasgow with a game against Ulster in Belfast, a tough starter for the Warriors who lost home and away to Dan McFarland’s side last season.
Wilson has strengthened his squad since and will also have access to more of his international players than he did during the 2020-21 campaign.
The addition of the four South African teams will make the league tougher but there is already a sense that the 1872 Cup festive double-header with Edinburgh will go a long way to shaping the season.
Although final positions in the 16-team URC will be decided by a single league table, teams are also divided into four regional pools, with the Scottish and Italian sides lumped in together. So Edinburgh and Glasgow will each play each other twice and each play Benetton Treviso and Zebre twice in the Scottish-Italian pool. The Scottish pro sides will then face the other 12 teams once only.
Winning your regional pool guarantees you a place in the following season’s Heineken Champions Cup, a goal Wilson has his sights set on.
“The obvious target is automatic European qualification which means finishing top in our group so that means finishing ahead of Edinburgh, Treviso and Zebre,” he said. “That has to be a standard we want to hit straight away.
“Likewise, the 1872 Cup is something we would like to retain, having won it last year for the first time for a while it would be nice to do it again.”
Glasgow’s season came alive with their home win over Edinburgh in January, giving them the impetus to go on and qualify for the Champions Cup after a shaky first half of the campaign.
It’s Wilson’s second season at the helm and he hopes to be dealt a better hand than he was last year when Covid conspired to leave both Scottish pro teams disproportionately disadvantaged. Autumn was a particularly tough period as the extended international window robbed Glasgow and Edinburgh of key players.
With Scotland having just two professional sides the impact was felt more keenly here than in Wales and Ireland where the pain could be spread amongst four teams.
Rugby being rugby, no team is ever likely to have a full squad to choose from and Glasgow go into their opening match of the season already missing nine players. Ali Price and Zander Fagerson have just returned to light training following their summer on the Lions tour, Oli Kebble (ankle/foot) and Matt Fagerson (arm) are recovering from operations, George Turner is coming back from a concussion, Josh McKay is still in New Zealand and the Argentine trio of Domingo Miotti, Enrique Pieretto and Sebastián Cancelliere are on international duty in the Rugby Championship.
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Nevertheless, the Warriors should feel the benefits of having the bulk of their Scotland internationals available and have also signed experienced campaigners such as Duncan Weir, Simon Berghan, Jamie Bhatti, Cancelliere and Miotti.
“Last season was extremely difficult with so many players unavailable to us,” said Wilson. “This year, as it stands now, those players are available to us. After the first four or five games, when all of those nine players who are not available to us now come back, I think we’ve got a really exciting squad in terms of depth and quality in a lot of positions.”
One of the benefits of the URC is that unlike its predecessor – the Guinness Pro14 – there will be no league fixtures played on international weekends. It should give the tournament more credibility as well as making life easier for coaches.
“I think it is a real positive and hopefully allows us to manage the squad a bit differently from last year – and hopefully we’re not looking for as many loan players as well,” said Wilson who also sounded a note of caution.
“You can’t be foolish enough to think that your players are going to play every game for you, then play every game for Scotland, then come back and play every game for you. It’s not going to work like that. Those players will need managing.
“But it is aligned differently so it won’t be like last year in the Autumn Nations Cup when we had 14 or 15 boys away for the weeks and didn’t get them back.”
The absence of so many experienced players forced Wilson to promote youth and the likes of Ross Thompson, Rufus McLean, Ollie Smith and Rory Darge all impressed. They may not have got their chance had Glasgow not been so short-handed and Wilson has called on them to kick on.
“I think what we need to see now is if they can do it consistently,” he said. “Last year we blooded those guys in the Pro14, which was tough for us, but as I said at the time we were ready to take some pain because it will be worth it, and we saw those fruits in terms of Rufus McLean, Rory Darge, Tom Lambert, Gregor Brown.
“So, we brought quite a few young guys through last year and the ones who will follow in behind that will be the likes of Max Williamson, who has played a couple of games now and is quite exciting as a young second-row.
“Ross [Thompson] has got some real competition with Duncy there as well now, so can he do it week-in and week-out in his second season? What do they call it, second season syndrome?
“It will be a good challenge. I’m confident in them. They’ve played well, trained well and shown that they are capable, so we’ll see how the challenge of the new season goes.”