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Townsend's tinkering leaves players disappointed . . . but it is certainly paying off

Al Kellock nailed it on Saturday evening.

Al Kellock may not suit Gregor Townsend's game plan to take on Munster  on Friday night. Picture: Sns
Al Kellock may not suit Gregor Townsend's game plan to take on Munster on Friday night. Picture: Sns

No, not in the moment when he reversed out of a lineout and scored Glasgow's third try against Zebre - "A backwards sidestep," he explained later, "you don't see many of those" - but rather with his unequivocal view of what preparations for Friday's RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final tie with Munster will involve. "Everything has got to be about the team that takes the field," he said. "It's about the 15 and the 23 that get selected."

The indications are that the head coach Gregor Townsend had already pencilled in most of his starting XV to take on Munster ahead of the Zebre game. A couple of displays may have swayed his thinking but probably not too far. Following the previous weekend's win away to Treviso, he explained that he tends to work two or three weeks in advance, although he quickly pointed out he is more than happy to change things around if he sees fit.

Change things around he does. Over the past eight weeks, Townsend has used the astonishing total of 36 players in the Warriors' team. From one week to the next he has typically changed half his team, and sometimes more. As a player, Townsend was often accused of recklessness but it is hard to level that charge against Townsend the coach when his bold selection strategy has produced eight wins on the trot, an unprecedented achievement for the club.

The reward is another first: a home semi-final. It is a game of which every one of those 36 players, and probably a few more as well, will want to be part. Which means, of course, that there will be an awful lot of disappointed people around Scotstoun this week.

Yet, as Kellock stressed, they will have to mask that disappointment, grin and bear it, and get on with the job of supporting those who are chosen. No professional sportsman worth his or her salt ever wants to be overlooked, but how a player reacts to that setback is as much a measure of his worth as anything he does on a pitch. At the risk of offending the Feline Defence League, they can go home and kick the cat if they want, but kicking the dressing-room door is out of order.

Indeed, the Kellock moggy may have had to hide beneath the sofa once or twice in the past. In 2007, after a hard summer's training, he was controversially omitted from Scotland's squad for the World Cup in France. Four years later, he captained his country to the next tournament, in New Zealand, but then suffered the embarrassment of being dropped for the critical pool game against Argentina. In both cases he reacted with dignity, kept his feelings to himself and, arguably, came back stronger.

It is not impossible that Kellock could miss out on Friday. I wouldn't back the scenario with hard cash as his leadership skills are without equal in the squad, but Townsend unquestionably has other options in the second row. Last month's wins against Munster and Ulster were the making of Glasgow's season, and they were achieved with a lock partnership comprising Tim Swinson and Jonny Gray.

There is a growing feeling that Swinson and Gray are the best option for the more abrasive forward battles: the kind of games you often get against Munster.

In a sense, those who are chosen have an easier job than those who miss the cut. In sport, pride can be the hardest thing to digest, but it will have to be swallowed. On the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa, the coaches Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan made it clear from the outset that the venture would not be compromised by the divisions and petty jealousies that had undermined so many Lions tours of the past. The players themselves agreed that, when the Test selections were made, the obligation was upon those who missed out to congratulate those who had been chosen ahead of them.

It was a subtle, but critical, reversal of the assumption that the selected player should offer a hand of sympathy to his rival. The Lions won that series by an achingly slim margin, and who is to say that the emphasis they put on maintaining the spirit of the squad did not give them the critical edge they needed?

Townsend played in the first two Tests on that tour - he missed the third through injury - and it is easy to suspect that he learned an important lesson while he was there. The Lions of that year were a stellar assembly, but the testimonies of almost everyone who was involved suggest that their collective purpose was the most significant component of their success.

Townsend appears to have created the same culture at Glasgow. When he took over as head coach two years ago, it was pretty much a given that he would want to raise the team's tempo on the pitch. It was far harder, given his inexperience, to predict how he would fare when it came to man-management. The evidence of the past two seasons is that he has been a very fast learner indeed.

Scotstoun is set for one of the great rugby nights on Friday. Glasgow, unquestionably, have form and momentum on their side, but Munster have a mountain of experience to draw on.

On their last visit, in October, Munster squeezed the life out of the Warriors and returned to Ireland with a narrow win secured. Their tactics infuriated the Glasgow fans, but that bothered them not one bit.

We will find out on Friday if the Warriors have moved on and can stand toe-to-toe with the two-times European champions. They will not want for support in the stands, from fellow players as well as fans.

AND ANOTHER THING

This column has railed against the overuse of television match officials. The frustrations of fans and pundits at referees unable to make decision on their own have reached a point where the International Rugby Board is almost certain to act soon to restrict the powers of the television match official.

Yet, strangely, Glasgow's match against Zebre last Saturday included an incident that referee Alain Rolland could, and probably should, have referred upstairs, but didn't.

It involved the try, or rather 'try', scored by Alex Dunbar. Replays showed that Dunbar dived too early, touched down a foot short of the line, and had lost control of the ball by the time he slid over.

As Warriors had the cushion of another seven perfectly good tries, I suspect that Zebre will not be filing an official complaint . . .

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