WHEN Glasgow reached the URC play-offs this time last year, they did so by stumbling through as the eighth and last qualifiers for the quarter-finals. They duly shuffled off again at the earliest opportunity, losing 76-14 to Leinster in a humiliation that cost Danny Wilson his job as head coach.

Twelve months on, the Warriors are in a far better place. That is no guarantee that they will get any further this time round, because Munster, tonight’s opponents in the last-eight match at Scotstoun, are sure to put up a ferocious fight. But they have made substantial progress this season under Franco Smith, Wilson’s replacement, and at least have a realistic chance of reaching the last four.

The flakiness has gone. The tendency to implode has vanished. Now, even when they are playing below their best  - as was the case for much of the first half in last week’s Challenge Cup semi-final against the Scarlets - this Glasgow team is capable of toughing it out.

Where does that quality come from? First, from the higher levels of fitness they have achieved under Smith’s rigorous regime. Then from the self-belief which arises from that enhanced physical preparedness. And finally from the consistency which the South African has instilled in his team.

That consistency, remarkably enough, is in evidence no matter who is in the starting line-up or on the bench. Smith has deepened the squad, and that has allowed him to rotate it judiciously.

The coach has been relatively restrained in his selection for this game, making only three changes, all up front, from the team that started in Llanelli. Richie Gray returns from illness to make his 100th appearance in place of JP du Preez; Johnny Matthews is at hooker instead of George Turner, who drops out of the 23; and Matt Fagerson comes into a reshaped back row, with Sione Vailanu dropping down to the bench.

The rivalry between the Warriors and Munster has been intense for some time, going back at least to the 2015 PRO12 final which Glasgow won, and although Fagerson said earlier this week that he felt personally there was no bad blood between the teams, former players have told a different story. As far as Smith is concerned, however, any such emotions are at best a distraction. He wants a clean contest, and he is sure that his Munster counterpart, former England prop Graham Rowntree, will be of like mind.

“This week is about focusing on the technical execution of what we need to do,” Smith said. “There has been nothing from our side to lean on that part of the game: we just want to be as good as we can be this weekend.

“Yes, obviously both teams will compete for the semi-final place, there will be extra demand and extra spice to it, but there is nothing specific from our side. We just want to play a proper game, which I suppose Graham Rowntree would have coached his side too. I think it’s going to be a hard-contested battle, but I don’t think there would be anything more than that in it.”

It is only six weeks since the teams last met, in a regular-season clash in Limerick which the Warriors won 38-26. Munster lost their following game too, to the Sharks in the last eight of the Champions Cup, but they went on to draw with the same team in the league after returning to winning ways against the Stormers. 

As far as Smith is concerned, that meeting at the end of March is irrelevant.  “That game will have absolutely no influence on what happens on Saturday. Yes, we have taken some lessons from it, as they would have, but it’s going to be a different game, it’s going to be a lot more contested. Making the most of your opportunities is going to be key. 

“They are a top quality side - that’s why everyone was surprised that we beat them. They have a lot of experienced players who have played in quarter-finals and semi-finals often. They know what pressure rugby is. We expect a tough encounter.”


Glasgow (v Munster at Scotstoun, tonight 7.35pm): O Smith; S Cancelliere, S Tuipulotu, S McDowall, K Steyn (captain); T Jordan, G Horne; J Bhatti, J Matthews, Z Fagerson, S Cummings, R Gray, M Fagerson, R Darge, J Dempsey. Substitutes: F Brown, N McBeth, S Berghan, J du Preez, L Bean, S Vailanu, A Price, H Jones.


Munster: M Haley; C Nash, A Frisch, M Fekitoa, S Daly; J Crowley, C Murray; J Loughman, D Barron, S Archer, J Kleyn, R Snyman, T Beirne, P O'Mahony (captain), G Coombes. Substitutes: N Scannell, J Wycherley, R Salanoa, F Wycherley, J Hodnett, C Casey, B Healy, A Kendellen.


Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy).