REGARDLESS of whether his team win or lose tonight’s Challenge Cup Final against Toulon in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, Franco Smith insists that Glasgow Warriors are only just getting started on the journey he planned out for them when he was appointed head coach at the club last summer.

The South African inherited a team in disarray when he took on the job, after Warriors suffered a humiliating 76-14 defeat to Leinster in Dublin in their final game of the 2021-22 campaign.

Under his guidance, the squad have become fitter, developed a simple but effective game-plan based on set-piece solidity and precise, direct back-play, and as a direct consequence their self-belief has ballooned.

Warriors claimed several impressive scalps on their way to finishing fourth in the URC regular season and reaching tonight’s final. However, to sit at the top table in European club rugby, they need to be winning their league and competing at the sharp end of the top-tier Champions Cup.

Their URC play-off quarter-final defeat at home to Munster a fortnight ago was a reminder that they remain a work in progress, but they are treating that as a speed bump as opposed to a major diversion.

“For the team it would be fantastic to win this match because we started off eight months ago with a certain objective,” said Smith. “For the city and for the club it would be important too – it would be a very good point of reference going forward.

“Of course, in my career a win would be up there,” he continued. “I have had some very good times with some special players, but obviously this year has been extraordinarily good because we managed to put the pieces of the puzzle together

“To get to the final is a fantastic reward. When I walked into the changing room for the first time, few of the players would have thought we’d be sitting here today.

“So, we will be very proud and excited and humble for those people who have believed in us. We want to give something back to them, but that doesn’t mean we put extra pressure on ourselves.

“It’s not about beating records, it’s about being the best we can be and using this as a stepping stone for where we want to be. We don’t see this final as the ultimate piece of the puzzle for this group of players. We have even more aspirations going ahead.”

While the return of Huw Jones to the starting XV at outside-centre in place of the benched Stafford McDowall is not a major shock, Smith has thrown a couple of his customary selection curveballs elsewhere in his line-up for this match.

In the pack, JP Du Preez is selected ahead of Richie Gray in the second-row, with the veteran Scotland cap ready to make an impact off the bench, while Rory Darge is also named as a replacement with Sione Vailanu, Matt Fagerson and Jack Dempsey the starting back-row.

Fraser Brown gets the nod at hooker, with Johnny Matthews on the bench, meaning Scotland’s current first choice No 2 George Turner has travelled to Dublin as 24th man.

Domingo Miotti comes in for the suspended Tom Jordan at stand-off.

Toulon have star-studded line-up including South African World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe at full-back, experienced Welsh playmaker Dan Biggar at stand-off and Italian legend Sergio Parisse at No.8. Former Glasgow second-row Brian Alain’uese and former Edinburgh flanker Cornell Du Preez are also in the starting line-up.

The French side have won the Champions Cup three times in the past but never got their hands on this trophy having fallen at the last hurdle four times previously, including a 30-12 defeat to Lyon in last year’s final.

“Toulon are clearly favourites. They must be. This is their fifth final,” Smith added. “They have always attracted players who have played at the very highest level, World Cup winners. They have a lot of experience, and they will know this environment better than us.

“Individually, they have excellent players who are a real danger for us, so if we play too loose and with too much individualism, we may get trapped.

“The elephant in the room for them is that they have lost all their previous final appearances in this competition. So, are they going to deal with the fact to try and avoid that extra pressure?

“They have been in Dublin since Tuesday to ensure nothing surprises them. From our point of view, we know also that thinking of all the losses can put extra external pressure that they don’t need.”