A return to coaching in the Champions Cup for the first time in a decade would seem like the optimal moment for Franco Smith to pause and savour his journey to date but that is not the South African’s style.

Appointed by Glasgow Warriors to a relatively apathetic reception in the summer of 2022, Smith has made good on his promise to push tirelessly for continual improvements. Finishing fourth in the United Rugby Championship last season guaranteed them a return to European club rugby’s premier tournament after a year’s absence, that progress matched with a run all the way to the Challenge Cup final. 

Now the degree of difficulty steps up another notch. Northampton Saints at home at a soggy Scotstoun this evening represents the first hurdle for Warriors to try to overcome as part of a four-game schedule that also includes meetings with Bayonne, Exeter Chiefs and old nemesis Toulon.

Tonight’s game will provide another barometer of Glasgow’s standing against the game’s elite but, win, draw or lose, Smith will not be satisfied. Asked to discuss any lessons learned from that European final against Toulon and now the step up to the main competition, the former Italy head coach made clear that his squad still has some way to go before they can be considered the finished article.  

“We’ve not spoken about the opposition as much as that occasion,” he said of the loss to Toulon. “We’ve spoken about what’s needed to win a final in any competition and what we can take from that and learn from it. 

“I said when I started there’s a process that needs to be followed. We’re still in that – we’re not a complete team yet. We’re not close to the product that I think can win consistently in both competitions. 

“The squad depth needs to improve to have a group of players who can perform consistently at the top level, apart from just internationals. Our five big rocks are our set-piece, breakdown, defence, attack and kicking structure and all need to grow immensely. There’s still a lot of improvement needed. But where we sit currently we need to compete the best we can.”

The weather may influence proceedings but Smith believes the reputation of both sides suggests Glasgow and Northampton could be set to serve up a classic to get this year’s Champions Cup underway.

“I think both teams have a similar DNA and that willingness to play with the ball is going to be important,” he added. “Traditionally the four-game tournament doesn’t allow you much room for error so both teams will need to be very good in the style of rugby that they play. The team that is more precise and is more execution-driven will definitely have a better chance of winning the game.

READ MORE: Stafford McDowall reflects on Champions Cup bow for Warriors

“It will be a good game to watch and a good one to start the competition with. Hopefully it lives up to the expectation.”

There will be additional interest on both sides of the border in the performance of Fin Smith, Saints’ Scots-qualified fly-half who looks set instead to throw his lot in with England.

“He’s got a good all-round game with attack being his main thing,” offered Smith. “I think that’s why he gets the nod currently. He kicks the ball well and his game is improving in the way that Northampton play. Fin has definitely improved and we would like to welcome him to Scotstoun.”

In terms of his own personnel, there’s a welcome return to the fray for Scotland centre Huw Jones after a foot injury, especially with Sione Tuipulotu rested. The game comes too soon, though, for George Horne who continues to nurse a hamstring strain. That means a third start in succession for 32 year-old scrum-half Sean Kennedy, with Ben Afshar again providing cover.

“Against Munster last week, even at his age, Sean would have learned a lot,” added Smith. “Against that crowd and in that environment, he played the champions of the competition. 

“It’s maybe a different type of pressure for him, but it’s good for him. That will only help him coming into this game against Northampton. Ben is really growing in confidence as well. He’s becoming more rapid and more precise with his execution. I’m really excited about both of them. This period will really allow us to have more depth at scrum-half moving forward.”

There’s also a special milestone this evening for Matt Fagerson who joins brother Zander in making 100 appearances for the club.

“We’re very proud of him,” added Smith of the Scotland back-rower. “I’ve gotten to know him over the past year and he’s an exceptionally hard-working person. He sets his standards really high and is one of the guys who really drives our defence. He’s been a wonderful influence around the place for us. 

“The consistency of his performances is the thing that really stands out for me. His commitment to the club is fantastic. He’s a very loyal person and deserves all the accolades that come his way.”

Glasgow Warriors: Josh McKay, Sebastian Cancelliere, Huw Jones, Stafford McDowall (c), Ollie Smith, Tom Jordan, Sean Kennedy; Jamie Bhatti, Johnny Matthews, Zander Fagerson, Sintu Manjezi, Richie Gray, Scott Cummings, Rory Darge, Matt Fagerson

Replacements: George Turner, Oli Kebble, Lucio Sordoni, Max Williamson, Allu Miller, Sione Vailanu, Ben Afshar, Ross Thompson