DESPITE being without nine front-line players for Friday night’s United Rugby Championship campaign opener away to Ulster, Glasgow Warriors head coach Danny Wilson was in bullish form on Monday as he looked towards the season ahead. 

“The obvious one [target] is automatic European qualification which means finishing top in our [URC] group ahead of Edinburgh, Treviso and Zebre,” he said. “That has to be a standard we want to hit straight away.  

“Likewise, the 1872 Cup is something we would like to retain, having won it last year for the first time for a while it would be nice to do it again.” 

He wasn’t quite as forthright when it came to his team’s chances in this season’s Champions Cup – which is perhaps understandable given that Warriors have been handed a tough draw with home and away matches against Exeter Chiefs and La Rochelle – but Wilson stressed that making it to the last 16 is a realistic prospect. 

“We know what qualification means and we know roughly how many points we need to get to, so we’ll be aiming for that, but they [topping their URC pool and reclaiming the 1872 Cup] are probably the two [targets] off the bat,” he said. 

A combination of a productive recruitment-drive ahead of the coming campaign, several youngsters grabbing their chance when pressed into action before the summer, and a new season structure which seeks to avoid clashes between the club and international game, has given Wilson this confidence that the next nine months can offer his team the chance to make real progress – which will be a welcome change after the Covid-blighted 2020-21 season in which damage limitation felt like the main pre-occupation. 

“Right now, pre-season has gone well for us in terms of playing numbers and settling some of the new faces,” he continued. “We’ve had two good warm-up games against Newcastle and Worcester – Premiership opposition – and we’re looking forward to what will be another long season, but hopefully a season which is a little bit more aligned as opposed to clashing with the international game.” 

The missing men this Friday consists of Zander Fagerson and Ali Price, who have only just returned to training having taken a five-week break following this summer’s Lions tour (Wilson has a comeback date in mind for the pair but doesn’t want to publicly commit to anything). 

Meanwhile, tight-head prop Enrique Pieretto plus two new recruits in the shape of stand-off Domingo Miotti and winger Sebastian Cancelliere are all away on international duty with Argentina in the Rugby Championship  

Full-back Josh McKay, another summer signing, is finishing up his season playing for Canterbury in New Zealand’s NPC and isn’t expected in Glasgow before the end of October. 

Finally, Matt Fagerson and Oli Kebble are still a few weeks away from being fit after surgery on their arm and foot/ankle respectively, while George Turner is recovering from a concussion. 

“Last season was extremely difficult with so many players unavailable to us for various reasons,” Wilson reflected. “This year is looking very different and when all of those nine players who are not available to us at the moment come back after the first four or five games, I think we’re going to have a really exciting squad in terms of depth and quality in a lot of positions.” 

Despite his obvious delight at the prospect of having so many more options available during the months ahead, Wilson insisted that there will be no back-pedalling of last season’s successful policy of giving youngsters on the fringes of the squad a chance to sink or swim in the deep-end of professional rugby. 

“I think what we need to see now is if they can do it consistently,” he said.

“Last year we blooded those guys in the PRO14, which was tough for us, but as I said at the time we were ready to take some pain because the fruit would be worth it, and we saw that with some of those boys in terms of Rufus McLean, Rory Darge, Tom Lambert, Gregor Brown and so on. 

“So, we brought quite a few young guys through last year and the ones who will follow in behind that will be the likes of Max Williamson, who has played a couple of games now and is quite exciting as a young second-row. 

“It is exciting, but it has to be a patience game as well, because there will be bumps along the road. 

“Ross [Thompson] has now got some real competition at stand-off with Duncy [Weir] arriving over the summer, so can he do it week-in and week-out in his second season? What do they call it, second season syndrome? 

“It will be a good challenge but I’m confident in them. They’ve played well, trained well and shown what they are capable of, so we’ll see how the new season goes.”