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Glasgow Warriors pick strongest team for Stade Rochelais clash

DANNY WILSON has been able to pick something very close to his strongest Glasgow team for tonight’s home game against Stade Rochelais, and he expects the Warriors will need every ounce of that strength against one of the biggest, toughest teams in the Champions Cup.

Wilson’s squad returned from La Rochelle with a creditable losing bonus from their first Pool A game last month, and followed that up with an excellent home win over Exeter, so they know they can live at this level of competition. However, it remains to be seen what their state of mind is in this final pool match after last week’s calamitous collapse away to the English club – from 17-14 up with half an hour to play to a 52-17 defeat – jeopardised their hopes of the top-eight finish needed to progress to the knockout stages.

The tournament’s convoluted qualification procedure means that Wilson’s team could in fact win tonight and still be eliminated, although that is only plausible if they fail to pick up a try bonus point. They could also lose and yet go through if other results go their way, but unsurprisingly, the head coach is disinclined to flirt with such a scenario. He is treating the match as a must-win, he is convinced that his team can win, but believes the key will be preventing the French side from slowing proceedings down so as to make best use of their greater bulk.

“If we can win and qualify then it will have been a hell of an achievement,” Wilson said yesterday after naming a team with four changes from the one that began at Sandy Park. “When we saw we were drawn with La Rochelle and Exeter we thought if we could get two home wins and a losing bonus away then we would be in a position to qualify, and we’d have been really pleased with that. 

“It’s all on this last game now, but it’s a home game. Granted, it’s against a very good side, but we’ve only lost one game at home all season, so it’s something we’re excited about.”

The return of supporters to Scotstoun coincides with the return to the first team of Rufus McLean, a man who can electrify a crowd with his blistering pace. The other three alterations to the 15 are in the pack, with Oli Kebble and Fraser Brown starting in the front row in place of Jamie Bhatti and George Turner respectively, and Richie Gray coming back from injury to take over at lock from Kiran McDonald.

Former Edinburgh tighthead Simon Berghan is also making a comeback from injury and will make just his second Warriors appearance if he comes off the bench. Ollie Smith makes it into the 23 as back cover, and Ryan Wilson again has to content himself with a place among the substitutes after making his 200th appearance as a replacement last week.

The likes of Bhatti, Turner and Wilson are all sure to be needed to lend their weight to the physical fight late in the game, by which time Wilson hopes that backs such as McLean will have tipped the contest in the Warriors’ favour. “We definitely want to start fast if we can in those first 20 minutes, the same way that we did out there,” the coach added. “I thought out there we did perform really well, but in the first 25 to 30 minutes we didn’t get enough points for that pressure. 

“They’re an enormous side. If they can get you to play the pace of rugby they want to play – that’s not as fast as the rugby we want to play – then they will overpower you. 

“They were very complimentary of us after that game, so they will do their due diligence on us and how to try to stop us playing. They will go very hard on the breakdown, with huge men that you have to shift. They’ll try to take the pace out of the game and try to play a slower power game. 

“We want to play fast. That’s no secret. So we’ll see what happens.”

Glasgow (v La Rochelle at Scotstoun, tonight 8pm): J McKay; K Steyn, S Tuipulotu, S Johnson, R McLean; R Thompson, A Price; O Kebble, F Brown (captain), Z Fagerson, S Cummings, R Gray, M Fagerson, R Darge, J Dempsey. Substitutes: G Turner, J Bhatti, S Berghan. K McDonald, R Wilson, G Horne, D Weir, O Smith.

La Rochelle: B Dulin; D Leyds, R Rhule, J Danty, Pierre Boudehent; P Popelin, T Kerr Barlow; D Priso, P Bourgarit, U Atonio, R Sazy, R Picquette, R Bourdeau, Paul Boudehent, G Alldritt. Substitutes: F Bosch, L Aouf, G Papidze, T LAvault, M Tanguy, T Berjon, I West, E Buliruarua.

Referee: K Dickson (England).

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