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Pressure for places is all the motivation required for players

It used to be the case that when the going got tough .

Peter Horne and his Glasgow Warriors team-mates are desperate to secure a home semi-final. Picture: SNS
Peter Horne and his Glasgow Warriors team-mates are desperate to secure a home semi-final. Picture: SNS

. . Scottish teams went off on holiday. Now, in the wake of clinching a place in the RaboDirect PRO12 play-off stages for the fourth time in five years, there is no let-up for Glasgow as the season reaches its business end. Having played, and lost, away from home in every previous semi-final, no team knows better than they do what home advantage means.

So while they might have raised a glass to Zebre when the Italian side's 30-27 win against Ospreys nine days ago knocked the Welsh team out of the play-off running, they will be rather less welcoming when the men from Parma pitch up at Scotstoun this evening. Glasgow have won their last seven PRO12 games on the trot, and just one more will be enough to secure the home semi they crave.

However, Zebre levered themselves off the bottom of the PRO12 table with that victory over Ospreys, and they are in no hurry to fall back to the bottom slot they have occupied for most of their two-season existence. So long as they can keep their noses ahead of fellow Italian strugglers Treviso, then a place in next season's inaugural European Champions Cup will be theirs.

Gregor Townsend, the Warriors coach, has stressed that very point to his players in the build-up to today's contest. For so long the hapless easybeats of the PRO12, Zebre are a very different proposition to the team of 12 months ago. Since the turn of the year, they have won as many games as they have lost (four) in the competition. They are as determined to end the regular season on a high note as Townsend's players.

Asked yesterday if he felt a pressure of expectation, Townsend turned the question on its head. "I'm not sure that everyone assumes we are going to win," he said. "Zebre beat Ospreys last week and they beat Edinburgh the week before. We have shown the players how much they have improved and how well they played against top-five teams.

"They are a much improved side this season. They defend with more width, they are a good tackling team, they have a lot of confidence and motivation and if they win they qualify for the Champions Cup."

And yet it is hard to see past a Glasgow victory at Scotstoun today. Their run of wins mark them out as the form team in the PRO12 at the moment, and they laid down a significant marker with their bonus-point win over Treviso in the Stadio Monigo last weekend. Having known before that game that nine league points would give them a home semi, they did more than half the job with their four-try haul. It was a performance of sheer class.

Clearly, there is a hunger in the Glasgow dressing room at the moment. Staggeringly, Townsend has used 35 players during the current winning run, and that number will grow again tonight when Sean Lamont takes to the pitch for the first time since he suffered a knee injury on Scotland duty during the Six Nations. The pressure for places and the desire to impress is intense.

Townsend said: "It's a massive factor. That's where a lot of the motivation will come from. They are all up for selection for next week. If they play well it will be even harder to pick the team. I wouldn't say I have a team in mind for next weekend, but we know who we would like to start in that semi.

"We are waiting to see how players play tomorrow to see how many have the form, the attitude and put in the effort. Either way we'll have more than 15 or even 30 players who deserve to start next week. That shows the strength of squad."

Duncan Weir also returns to the side. His arrival means that Townsend has not chosen the same fly-half from one game to the next for eight matches in succession. However, the coach hinted that Finn Russell may be the preferred choice next week. Russell has played a lot of rugby in recent weeks, and his absence - along with Gordon Reid and Josh Strauss - suggests that he is being held back for the semi.

"We have to play the rugby that gets us a win," said Townsend when asked if he felt Ospreys had been too conservative against Zebre last week. "I would never like to think we would be cautious. We play with aggression in defence and ambition in attack, but we have to play smart rugby as well. If it is raining, as we expect, then we will have to put pressure on the opposition in different ways. We have built good momentum. "

Edinburgh, by contrast, probably just want the season over. They looked dead on their feet when they shipped 55 points against Munster last weekend, and they will do well to keep the scoreline respectable when they take on Leinster in Dublin today. Alan Solomons has shuffled his backline, but conceded that taking on the leaders in their own backyard is daunting.

"Leinster are a benchmark team in Europe. They are an outstanding side who are well balanced and play a physical game at a high tempo, complemented by some very talented individuals."

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