Some thoughts on Glasgow’s Guinness PRO12 victory
“ABOUT BLOODY TIME”
Sixteen years from when the club were formed, Scottish pro rugby may have finally come of age in Belfast.
One wonders what the late Duncan Paterson, the architect of the Scottish “super teams” plan in 1998, would have made of it. Recalling the irascible former Scotland scrum-half and SRU chief executive, it would probably have been something along the lines of “about bloody time”.
Paterson talked of five-figure crowds for the Glasgow Caledonians and Edinburgh Reivers (as they were then called) vying for titles when he controversially merged the four Scottish districts into two. A decade and a half on, the Warriors have just had two 10,000 sellouts at their home ground of Scotstoun and now have won the PRO12 title.
It’s been a long and often painful journey to get here and there are many in Scottish rugby who will still argue themselves into a fury that we took the wrong route. It’s impossible to gainsay them, and equally impossible to say with any certainty that they are right.
But to continue this argument is perverse. If there’s anyone still rattling out an “aye, but” now, they can be safely ignored.
Glasgow have produced the template by which pro rugby can flourish in Scotland. They’ve done it by successfully building an almost entirely new market for the game in an area perceived as more hostile to rugby than any in the country.
No-one pretends that Scotland’s largest city is abandoning its historic obsession with soccer, but there is a sizeable constituency now that see Friday nights at Scotstoun as a must. A title-winning team is unlikely to detract from that.
Over in Edinburgh, supposedly a “rugby city”, they’re already following the Warriors model. They probably need a smaller stadium for it to be a complete success, but the foundations are laid.
With this template and proper backing from Murrayfield rarely there until the current regime – the pro clubs can thrive, perhaps even spawn a third team. And in the long-term that can surely only help the currently beleaguered national side.
I was one of those who was furious when Gregor Townsend was made coach of Glasgow. It seemed as if he was the favoured son at Murrayfield, and had done little or nothing to merit the senior position with the better of the two pro teams.
Certainly his tenure as Scotland attack coach had been pretty dreadful. The regard he was held by some, specifically in world rugby, seemed to be more memories of his abilities as a player.
The joke among some in Scotland was how Toonie would be able to tell players he coached what he wanted, when his team-mates through his playing career had barely a clue.
It’s true he inherited a good situation from Sean Lineen at Glasgow, who in concert with Al Kellock and Shade Munro, had laid a solid foundation for a winning team and specifically the “Whatever It Takes” identity which has served them so well.
It’s also true that he got a good hand from Murrayfield, who as Gordon McKie departed from the chief executive post opened the purse strings a little more, perhaps more in Glasgow’s favour than Edinburgh’s.
But it’s undeniable that this is a different, much more rounded team than he inherited, the way he’s brought on young talents ahead of schedule, the way they play with a tactical inventiveness and often audacious style that was not there before.
He’s been outstanding at identifying talent. Finn Russell, it’s fair to say, has not been universally admired as a player on his way up the ranks, but Townsend has championed him and Scotland might have a 10 at last as a result.
Mark Bennett’s career was at a crossroads, and has blossomed again. Most of all Stuart Hogg, albeit with one little issue at the end of last season now forgotten, is fulfilling all that potential.
Townsend gave Jonny Gray his chance before he was out of his teens. He also brought the fabulous Fijians to Scotstoun, when nobody else was giving them a chance. If football’s transfer system was in operation in rugby, Niko Matawalu would have cost pennies and be departing Glasgow for millions.
Townsend is ambitious, and I’m sure he more than fancies coaching in France or England at some point. He has a year left on his contract, and Scottish Rugby has a big decision to make coming up.
“Ruck Observer General” was one gibe often made at Glasgow’s captain. There’s a feeling among some of Scotland’s Calvinistic rugby element that he’s a been bit too friendly with the press and got an easy ride as a result.
Well, guilty as charged, m’lud. Kellock is not the most well-rounded rugby player who has a half century of caps. He was a lineout specialist, a very good one at that, but not that great a ball carrier, not terrific at clearing out or the down and dirty duties.
He was brilliant at interviews, though, and you got the clear idea why he was captain wherever he went in the game.
And he was The Captain. They play the Biffy Clyro song as the Warriors come out at Scotstoun for him. Josh Strauss laughed when we asked him how it felt to be skippering the team in the final on Saturday; “Al’s the captain. The number on his back doesn’t matter.”
Kellock bought into the identity thing that has been so important for Glasgow, was more responsible than just about anybody in making it work, and that’s a large part of why they get 10,000 at Scotstoun now. Nobody else could have lifted the trophy on Saturday.
He was there at the outset, with Shade Munro, and they’ve seen it through to the end. Hopefully they make Al a permanent mentor to Jonny Gray (a much better rugby player in nearly all aspects) and Scottish Rugby’s professor emeritus of lineout.
Of all the players leaving this summer, I think the fans will end up missing the Canadian the most.
Van de Merwe had that nose for a try you just can’t teach. He was on the shoulder so often, breaking the first tackle because he is so bloody awkward to get hands on, scoring under the posts.
He was another “discovery” who cost Glasgow pennies but ended up being too good for them to afford with their limited budget.
A difficult choice had to be made, and it’s understandable that they’ve gone with the force of nature that is Taqele Naiyaravoro. But DTH leaves with the club’s try-record, 43 in six seasons, including one in both the semi-final and final this past two weeks.
He’s been just as important to Glasgow as Tim Visser was to Edinburgh, with less publicity. And he was always a better defender.
Niko was a constant thrill to watch. He sometimes made you cringe, not least in the semi-final last week. But he always seemed to leave you with a grin on your face.
His signature moment? For me, stealing the ball from Ruan Pienaar at the base of a scrum against Ulster a couple of years back, and then throwing a ridiculous pass out of the back of the hand for Tommy Seymour to score. Ulster haven’t won at Scotstoun since.
But if it really was a decision on keeping him or the off-loading machine that is Leone Nakarawa, they made the right one. Good luck in Bath, wee man.