Franco Smith has become synonymous with his surprise team selections and it’ll be no different when Glasgow Warriors run out at the Stade Jean-Dauger tonight. 

The South African head coach has rested several key players for the challenging Champions Cup clash against Bayonne in the South of France. Scotland internationals Stafford McDowall, Rory Darge, Scott Cummings and Johnny Matthews have been left out of the squad, while experienced lock Richie Gray is on the bench.

The format of European rugby’s premier competition significantly reduces jeopardy over exiting the continental stage early on. The top four highest-ranked clubs in each pool progress to the last 16, while the fifth placed club parachutes into the Challenge Cup. Therefore, 20 or the 24 clubs in the competition at the culmination of the pool stages and Glasgow famously reached the final of the Challenge Cup last season before losing to Toulon. 

Cynics may question the motivations behind Smith’s decision to rest key players ahead of the crucial double header against rivals Edinburgh in the URC and the Warriors head coach concedes there’s more room for error in the Champions Cup.

“This format currently allows us to at least drop one game,” he admitted. “Our pool is reasonably open now but it would’ve been fantastic if we had scored that final try last week to get two points on the board. The mountain is a little bit higher for us because we need to win the next three to give us a very good chance. Like last year, I think 12 points from the four games will give you a very good chance to progress but we aren’t looking at the bigger picture. Our objective is to put up a proper performance away from home.

“It was always evident that we’d have to use the full squad as it’s the ninth game of the season. We knew that we’d use the squad and it’s a great opportunity to add freshness into the group and we are excited to see some of the internationals returning.

"There’s good balance for us and it’s a good opportunity to see the value of the Warriors squad that we’ve been working on. We saw last year against Bath that sometimes you must play guys with a bigger aspiration than just winning, and these guys want to establish themselves in the squad by proving their worth. The energy these guys bring will be fantastic.” 

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George Horne’s return from injury is a massive boost as Glasgow missed having international quality at scrum-half in defeat to Northampton last week. Smith has picked youngster Ben Afshar over the experienced Sean Kennedy on the bench after an impressive second half display last week and the Warriors coach has one eye on the future. 

“The main thing now is that we need to bring through the young Scottish boys,” he admitted. “Alex Samuel and Max Williamson, Angus Fraser have all put their hands up and Ben is another one of those products that we need to bring through. It’s part of the growth of the club and I speak every week about the need to improve. Ben has done exceptionally well, we need to follow a process with him but being part of this ERCC game will be very important for his growth.” 

While Glasgow are optimistic over Matt Fagerson’s injury, Scotland’s other number 8 Jack Dempsey is in a race against the clock to be fit for the Six Nations after undergoing surgery on a facial issue. 

“We’re hoping that he’ll be back for the last game of the EPCR against Toulon (January 19),” France revealed. “But the injury is to his face and it’s important he gets confidence in the contact again. I don’t think he’s in doubt for the entire Six Nations, we’ll see how he progresses. We will do everything to make him available.”

On Fagerson, Smith added: ““It’s not that serious, just a little fracture in his eye socket. That’s a four-week injury. Nothing is displaced. Jack’s was the displacement of bone fragments. This is just a little fracture with some blood leaking into his eye but anything around the head for us is serious. We just have to manage him and make sure he returns for the matches in January.”

Munster were punished for their complacency after resting key players to face Bayonne last weekend when the French side held the Irish giants to a draw. Glasgow will be met with a raucous atmosphere tonight and Smith knows his side will need to stand up and be counted.

“They are playing a big European cup game at home [so] they will be up for it,” said Smith. “They played some very good rugby at stages against Munster, and we know they are doing very well in the Top 14 with a strong squad.

“Looking at the group in the past six weeks, they have changed their selection often with one big name replacing another, so they have recruited well and they are very well coached and they’ve got a very similar mindset to what we’ve got with a big pack of forwards who like to maul but at the same time play high tempo like all French sides do.”