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Townsend's numbers game a tough one to call

The moment was pure comedy; the message much more serious.

Ryan Grant drives through Zebre's defence on a night when Glasgow's relentless pressure led to a season-ending bonus point and an emphatic 54-point victory. Picture: SNS
Ryan Grant drives through Zebre's defence on a night when Glasgow's relentless pressure led to a season-ending bonus point and an emphatic 54-point victory. Picture: SNS

When Nikola Matawalu beat Stuart Hogg in the 31st minute in the race to score the sixth of Glasgow's eight tries, the contrast between the Fijian's broad and impudent grin and Hogg's thunderous expression brought gales of laughter from the stands. But that competition between the two players embodied the fact that no-one in this Glasgow Warriors squad wants to be on the sidelines when they return to Scotstoun for Friday's RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final with Munster.

Captain Al Kellock said as much afterwards, but he also issued the warning that the solidarity that has been Glasgow's greatest strength in recent seasons cannot be compromised now. "What I said to the boys before the game was that everybody has had opportunities throughout the whole year, everybody has had a chance to play," said Kellock. "You know individually that you have given everything you possibly can to get into the semi-final team. Now, everything has got to be about the team that takes the field, about the 15 and the 23 that get selected."

The indications are that coach Gregor Townsend has a pretty clear idea of what his team will be, but he is still spoiled for choices. What price a backline that has Peter Murchie at full-back, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland on the wings, Finn Russell and Mark Bennett in the centre and a half-back pairing of Chris Cusiter and Ruaridh Jackson? Hard to argue with the quality of that lot, but not one of them was in the starting line-up on Saturday evening.

There are options, too, in the pack. Only two of the Warriors forwards who started against Zebre had lined up against Treviso eight days earlier. Edinburgh ended their PRO12 season bravely with a defiant performance against Leinster in Dublin, but for much of the campaign you could have made the case that Scotland's second-best side was not the capital outfit but Glasgow's reserve team. In the run of eight consecutive victories that has taken his side into the uncharted territory of a first-ever home semi-final, Townsend has called on the services of a staggering 36 players.

In most clubs, to chop and change as he has would be a recipe for disaster, but it speaks volumes for the underlying tactical understanding and the togetherness of the squad that the toing and froing of so many players has done nothing to rock the winning boat. Such is the strength in depth at Glasgow now that Townsend has been able to rip up the rulebook that used to insist that continuity was the key to consistency and success.

Munster, by contrast, have won just four of their last eight PRO12 games, but there is no doubting the pedigree or the rugby culture of a side that has reached the last four of the Heineken Cup 11 times. Glasgow may have form on their side at the moment - their run of wins included a notable away victory against Munster - but the Irish side have a mountain of experience at the business end of the season.

Munster coach Rob Penney may have expanded the side's tactical horizons, but they are still capable of slipping back into their stuffy, pragmatic and infuriatingly effective ways. Glasgow have ended the regular season just as they started it, with a run of victories, but it is worth remembering that it was Munster - and at Scotstoun at that - who brought that autumn streak to a juddering halt last October.

"It will be really tough," Townsend admitted. "We watched them against Toulon and they played really well. Against Toulouse, the week before we played them, they were outstanding. They are the type of team that plays really well on the big occasion.

"When it comes to semi-finals, the big occasions, they are always going to be competitive till the final whistle. They have the most outstanding players as well. They have scored the most tries this season and have some big players back from injury. Casey Laulala, Simon Zebo have been playing well and the pack is one of the best around."

Munster had actually lost their status as the league's top try scorers by the time Townsend spoke, Ospreys having overtaken them on Saturday as they beat Connacht 45-20. Yet the danger is clear. No side has ever lost a home semi-final since the play-off format was introduced in 2009, but if you were to back any team to break that pattern it would probably be the men from the south-west of Ireland.

And yet the momentum is still with Glasgow. If their supporters came to Scotstoun on Saturday with a nagging fear that their favourites would freeze on the night, those anxieties were quickly dispelled as Hogg surged through to claim the first try with just 45 seconds on the clock. The second (Ryan Grant), third (Kellock) and fourth (Hogg again) followed quickly as Glasgow claimed the fastest try-bonus point of the season - 18min 36sec - and came within a minute of breaking the all-time record.

Granted, it helped their cause that Zebre were pitifully bad and strangely listless for a side that, in theory at least, were playing for Italy's place in next season's European Champions Cup. The only apparent urgency they showed was in their eagerness to get the white flag to the top of the pole as soon as humanly possible. Frankly, they were dreadful.

But Glasgow were still very good. And none better than Leone Nakarawa, the lock who was playing at No.8, whose magical ball skills fitted perfectly into the Warrior's high-tempo approach. Nakarawa will have given Townsend food for thought selection-wise, but the coach is likely to conclude that Josh Strauss's more muscular, close-quarters game is more appropriate against Munster.

In teeming rain, Glasgow closed out with further tries by Alex Dunbar, Geoff Cross and a brace by Matawalu. Typically, Kellock was as pleased by the fact Zebre did not register a single point. For the third season in succession, then, Glasgow finished with the best defensive record in the league.

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