Monday, June 01, 2015

Munster-13 Glasgow Warriors-31

A Scottish team celebrating a title live on Sky Sports with “BT Sport” on their jerseys... the new order of northern hemisphere rugby encapsulated in one pic?

"He's like the leader in a buffalo stampede, that lad Scott Gibbs.”

A classic metaphor from the late great legend of the rugby microphone that was Bill McLaren.  

The words were imparted after the ironically-named Welsh centre scored a last-gasp try at Wembley that not only denied England a Grand Slam in 1999 but also handed the then-Five Nations Championship title to Scotland on points difference...their last major trophy.

Of course here in Ireland we know a thing or two about winning a title after waiting on two other teams battling it out in London, but in many ways, that’s where the comparison between the pro game in the two countries reaches an end, especially when it comes to success on the pitch.

Yet you certainly wouldn’t know it when you read rugby commentary from within the Irish bubble, this site included.  If you have been following our harping in recent weeks you’d believe Connacht “wuz robbed”, Ulster are underachieving, Leinster are in disarray, Munster disappointed on Paulie’s send-off and even Joe Schmidt’s Ireland weren’t spared judgement after being rather flat against the Baa-Baas.

If anything can put all of that grumbling into perspective, it’s the career of retiring Glasgow Warriors skipper Alastair Kellock.  He began at pro level with Edinburgh and moved across to Glasgow in 2006, immediately being appointed captain and going on to appear 157 times for the club.

Now it’s not like the 6ft 8 stalwart (with his rugby position right there at the end of his surname) went all that time without any honours...being capped 56 times for your country is definitely one, and doing it ten times as skipper even more so.  But surely he must afford a wry smile as we Irish fans complain about our lot given the multiple Six Nations titles, Heineken Cups and Celtic Leagues we have enjoyed in the time he has graced the highest stage.

When he took to the field at Raven- Kingspan Stadium for what was only his 4th-ever appearance as sub for the Warriors, the match may have already been won but everyone involved with Scottish rugby knows his contribution over the years has every bit as much to do with the victory as those of all 15 starters put together.

Another notable feature of Scotland’s 1999 triumph was that their centre Gregor Townsend scored a try in every match, an extremely rare feat for the competition.  He took over the head coaching position at Glasgow in 2012 and the club have shown improvement in every season under his charge.  They went from a missed placekick away from the final in 2013 to the final itself last season to champions now.

This steady improvement has been fuelled more than anything else by the Warriors playing with a cohesive style from 1 to 23 that is an immense credit to the guidance of Messrs Townsend and Kellock and is fully deserving of the word “Champions”.  

So while it definitely could be said that Munster’s own performance was well below that which an occasion like this demands, I certainly couldn’t make that the focus of the writeup.  Glasgow’s club motto is “Whatever It Takes” and they most definitely did what it took to get the job done and then some.

In the opening exchanges it looked to all intents and purposes that it was going to be every bit the tight low-scoring contest I was expecting.  The Warriors with their brilliant support lines and offloads got their way deep into the Munster 22 only for David Kilcoyne to force a penalty to the defence.  Anyone who followed these two clubs throughout the season would be forgiven for believing things had started as they were  meant to go on.

Shortly afterwards a Donncha Ryan steal gave his side good a attacking position and in true Munster style they won a kickable penalty shortly afterwards.  Well, when I say kickable, I mean to someone who isn’t currently affected by the yips Ian Keatley has shown in recent weeks.

This Munster campaign has not only ended with defeat to a Scottish club but it also started with one as a late Keatley miss handed Edinburgh victory on opening day back in September.  Of course I’m not saying for a second that his troubles have been there all season as he played a big role in getting his side to this final but those yips have definitely returned at the worst possible stage of the season and he really needed that first pen to get over the crossbar yet in got caught in the Belfast breeze and went wide left.

Then it looked like Glasgow’s Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe was in for a certain try down the wing before he was brilliantly tap-tackled by skipper Denis Hurley then bundled into touch.  It seemed as though Munster had dodged yet another early bullet until hooker Guinazu threw a crooked dart and suddenly the Warriors had a prime attacking position right outside the Munster 22.  

Enter Leone Nakarawa.

I call the Fijian “The Octopus” for his style of offloading which involves somehow finding a way to contort his arm to find a support runner no matter what way he is tackled.  To be honest I never really perceived him as a credible threat in this encounter given how even when introduced as a sub in last year’s final, Leinster’s tacklers seemed to be one step ahead of him.

But the word seems to be from Warriors fans that he has improved this season and that was definitely evident here.  Rob Hartley’s try which opened his side’s account was made look easy partly by poor first-up tackling but mostly by Nakarawa’s uncanny ability to both gain ground and find his support in one fell swoop.

Just a few minutes later, he was at it again over on the touchline only this time his pass went into touch; then van der Merwe had another try-scoring chance denied, this time over the line as a late (possibly illegal though not called) intervention from Keith Earls denied him.

Munster finally got some time in the Glasgow 22 around the 20-minute mark and I thought Earls would have been better served making a beeline for the corner - instead he cut inside and while they got it to the try-line where I felt Harley illegally fell on top of the ruck from the side, that wasn’t called either and this time van der Merwe had his try-saving hat on as he was able to rip the ball back for his side.

Keatley was to have success from the place tee shortly afterwards to put his side on the board but by then the gremlins had spread to his kicking from the hand, which was poor throughout the match.  A clearance didn’t find touch and eventually it got to Nakarawa who did what he does to once more get into the Munster 22 to offload for van der Merwe to finally get the score he deserved.

The easy conversion from Finn Russell made the score an unbelievable 3-14 and soon it was to get worse for a Munster side who could not get their offence going at all. After two possessions of 8 and 10 phases respectively got them nowhere, the ball fell to Stuart Hogg who can spot a mismatch from 100 paces and he ghosted around Kilcoyne to get into the backfield where a pinpoint pass to Pyrgos put the Warrior Nation on high alert that this day was in fact theirs.

But of course you rule Munster out at your peril.  Plus, they would have been fully aware that the Warriors had Leinster under a similar kosh at the end of March only to be pulled back to a draw, so when Andrew Smith dotted down before the break and the Scots seemed a wee bit jittery at the start of the second half, the contest appeared far from over.

Personally, I don’t understand why Munster chose to kick for the posts on 48m after having won two penalties to get into the Glasgow 22, the second of which was at a scrum.  If the 3 points brought them with 7 or less of their opposition, maybe it would make sense, but having already tried twice for the corner and being so far behind I thought it was worth the risk to assert themselves by sticking with the scrum to tempt referee Nigel Owens into penalty try/yellow card territory.

But take the points they did this it allowed Glasgow to regroup behind the posts and from the restart they began to rediscover their mojo.  Nakarawa had now moved on from uber-cheeky offloads to auditioning for one of the Auld Firm soccer clubs and having already run in three tries from outside the 22, the Warriors seemed to be craving one from inside just to show they could.  

And sure enough, shortly after Keatley was replaced by JJ Hanrahan (about who’s own departure from Munster very little has been said that I can see), a series of 13 “red zone” phases was capped off by fittingly by outhalf Finn Russell, who has certainly done his World Cup prospects no harm at all in the past couple of weeks.  Once he converted his own try the margin was 15 and there was little hope for Munster getting the 3 scores required.

Like I said, by the time Alastair Kellock took to the field, the match was over as a contest and the celebrations were already beginning to take off around the ground which sub Duncan Weir applied some 3-point icing to the cake with a penalty.  Munster to their credit kept going to the end but they would be first to admit they fell short of the mark on the day and the right team won.

When Glasgow’s other Fijian Niko Matawalu took to the field, unfortunately he was booed by the Ulster supporters in the crowd.  Like most rugby fans I was annoyed by his antics in last week’s semifinal but for me if we’re going to moan about something because it’s something you'd see in a soccer stadium, then lying in wait for the player to boo him next time up is trying make a right out of two wrongs.

Still though, I’m sure there was at least a bit of a tongue-in-cheek nature about it and it certainly didn’t seem to phase the player.  And the Glasgow coaching staff would never actually say as much but I’d wager they were a tad relieved they didn’t have to rely on his unpredictable nature for a result in this match.

On the subject of the neutral venue for a final, while I reckon Belfast was the best candidate, I’m still not a big fan of the practice myself, at least not for a league competition as the team that finishes 1st should have some reward if there must be playoffs.  But if the Guinness Pro12 insists on continuing with it next season, I sincerely hope that it is a done deal that it should be awarded to Glasgow.  Whether they want it in Scotstoun or perhaps a bigger venue would be up to them but the next league showpiece should definitely take place outside of Ireland and the Scots have most certainly earned it.

As for the future for Glasgow, well as with any club who achieves success the pressure will be on to back it up with more...surely the best way to do that will be to get out of their European pool next season and we’ll see if going for that will affect their defence of the title.

When it comes to Munster, their fans will see the season as a disappointment with this result especially after a similar capitulation at Saracens in January.  But there were certainly a lot of positive for Anthony Foley’s first season in charge and despite the immense hole that will be left in their squad by Mr O’Connell (I’m afraid to say too much about his departure from Munster because I still have a feeling in my bones Leinster will draw Toulon in Europe so we could well be seeing him again soon) you can be sure they’ll be back.

Did they miss Murray and O’Mahony on the day?  Well...any team would find it hard to replace players of their calibre but I really don’t think those were the areas where Glasgow found the most superiority on the day; plus Gregor Townsend was missing a key player or two himself not least of whom were his regular starting centres Dunbar and Bennett.

Of course they were also missing Mr A Kellock until the final 14 minutes of their campaign but like I suggested earlier, there was no better man to go up to lift the Pro12 trophy afterwards.  This was a special day for him, for Glasgow, for Scottish rugby in general, and even as an Irish fan I have to say it’s a good result for the competition as a whole.

We now have three of the four participating nations with clubs on the honour roll...looking at the final standings from this season it may be a while until we see a fourth but that’s a debate for another day.

Sincerest congratulations to all involved with the Glasgow Warriors for a most deserved triumph.  However...don’t get too comfy with that trophy, will ye?  We wouldn’t mind seeing it back at the RDS this time next year ;-)  JLP


Next week our Monday match writeup will feature the Irish Under20s aka “The Wolfpuppies” who take on Scotland on Saturday after kicking off their Junior World Championship campaign against Argentina this Tuesday.
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