David Ferguson: Progress made despite Glasgow defeat

'Townsend and Taylor have actually made a good fist of their first season'. Picture: SNS
'Townsend and Taylor have actually made a good fist of their first season'. Picture: SNS
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ONE pass lost into the air, a poor refereeing decision, a mistake under pressure and Glasgow’s attempt to reach a first RaboDirect PRO12 Final foundered, but that does not necessarily mean the Warriors’ season was a failure.

No-one is more sick of the term ‘heroic failure’ than Alastair Kellock, Glasgow’s towering lock forward who has proven himself to be the best captain across Scotland, Ireland and Wales twice in the past four seasons, according to those countries’ rugby media.

Saturday’s loss meant nothing other than failure to achieve what he knew was possible and, while he praised the courage and efforts of his team-mates in the aftermath yesterday, there was no disguising the pain he felt at a third semi-final defeat in four years. Coming off the back of a demoralising finish in Europe, with a solitary win over Northampton, in the black-and-white of bare results it does add up to failure.

And, yet, this time last year there were many Glasgow supporters, and veteran pundits, on one hand lambasting the SRU for replacing head coach Sean Lineen with newcomer Gregor Townsend and, on the other, insisting that the team had to reach the final to prove the move was correct, while clearly expecting the new coaching team to fall short.

A dip is common with new coaching ideas and new personnel, and it was perhaps right to expect it here with Townsend in his first head coach role – he had just three years’ hands-on coaching experience in reality. But, helped by existing forwards coach Shade Munro and the players, Townsend and Matt Taylor have actually made a good fist in their first season of building on the foundations left by Sean Lineen and Gary Mercer, despite a tough baptism.

Around 12 players left Scotstoun and nearly as many arrived, eventually. Leaving at this point last year were Richie Gray, Johnnie Beattie, Fergus Thomson, Calum Forrester, Federico Arambaru, Colin Gregor, Rob Dewey, Colin Shaw, Dave McCall, Alex Dunbar and James Eddie, though the last two were re-signed.

Among the new arrivals were backs Sean Lamont, Taylor Paris, Byron McGuigan and Niko Matawalu, with the hope that Rory Lamont would be like a new signing once fit, and big forwards Angus Macdonald, Viliami Ma’afu and Tim Swinson, with a handful of young Scots, such as Fraser Thomson and Finlay Gillies pushing in the academy.

And then the season launched with injury crises. Stuart Hogg was out for the first eight weeks with an ankle injury; scrum-halves Chris Cusiter and Murray McConnell were injured and did not return, Henry Pyrgos was on Scotland duty for three months and Matawalu was signed but did not arrive until October so missed pre-season and the first six rounds of games. So Townsend turned to Edinburgh’s Stirling academy recruit Sean Kennedy, with some success.

At one point, five front rows were injured, with Jon Welsh playing just six games and Mike Cusack 11, so club players and short-term signings plugged gaps; John Barclay and Chris Fusaro had spells injured, Duncan Weir followed, Rory Lamont never did regain fitness before announcing his retirement recently, though Mark Bennett’s return from Clermont Auvergne was agreed.

The team’s great ball-carrying hopes last summer, Macdonald and Ma’afu, struggled for fitness too and, after just one start for Macdonald, Townsend acted swiftly, and controversially, by persuading them to move on. He replaced them with Golden Lions back row Josh Strauss, and, with Lineen’s help, Crusaders wing Sean Maitland. Strauss arrived in September, but said it took him until his first 80 minutes in January to get used to the un-South Africa-like heavy pitches, and Maitland made his debut four days before Christmas.

In all, 51 players were assimilated into Glasgow’s league and cup campaigns, and yet they grasped the consistency required to win three more games than last season, scoring nearly double the number of tries.

They could have beaten Leinster had one or two more passes gone to hand, but, for me, it was the 6-0 defeat to Leinster at Scotstoun in November that cost them. Even a draw there would have secured them a home semi-final as it turned out, and there is little doubt the big RDS crowd helped sway the French referee on key decisions on Saturday, just enough to put Leinster’s nose in front.

Glasgow supporters will be disappointed at the European failure and another semi-final loss. However, on sober reflection, there is more to be positive about on the horizon now than was the case amid the maelstrom of a year ago.