IF EVER there was a performance that brought back memories of Gregor Townsend the player, it was this achingly narrow defeat in Dublin.
Exciting, razor’s-edge stuff that kept going right to the final whistle, this was exhilarating and infuriating in equal measure, as potent a symbol of how far Glasgow have come as it was of how far they still have to travel.
If Glasgow were never in complete control, for much of this frenetic encounter they were in the lead, and deservedly so. That they should have closed out this match is beyond doubt; that they would have done so back in the days of Dan Parks a given. Yet the old Glasgow rarely displayed the swashbuckling elan that the Warriors oozed at the RDS last night; it was part of Townsend’s virtue as a player, and last night looked to be part of his frustrations as a coach.
It says much about Glasgow, however, that they grabbed this game by the scruff of the neck. To come to Dublin and attempt to boss the side which has been the biggest force in European rugby for much of this century takes some chutzpah, even if Leinster are not the thoroughbreds they once were. In fact the former Heineken Cup winners were not just missing the banned Brian O’Driscoll, but virtually a whole team in Gordon D’Arcy, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy, Luke Fitzgerald, Mike Ross, Eoin Reddan and Richardt Strauss. Like Ireland, Leinster have been hamstrung by injuries and bad luck.
If Glasgow were also missing a whole bevy of key players – Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Chris Fusaro and Ryan Grant were all notable by their absence – there was a palpable sense that if they couldn’t beat this Leinster side then they could never come to the RDS with expectation rather than hope.
If there was one player who typified the frustrations of their night it was the man who was their greatest strength but also turned out to be their greatest weakness. Until he was replaced with 15 minutes remaining and Glasgow still comfortably ahead, Niko Matawalu was immense in attack, his muscular running and sniping attacks around the fringes reaping rich dividends and making a huge contribution to Glasgow’s two first-half tries.
Yet the scrum-half was also a liability on far too many occasions. At times his pass was as laboured as it was inaccurate, with poor old Duncan Weir as likely to be taking it above his head or around his bootstraps as in front of him. Indeed, with Glasgow having established a 17-6 lead midway through the first half courtesy of some great driving play and inspired footwork from wing DTH van der Merwe, a hopelessly awry pass from the scrum-half and a brazen offside saw Ian Madigan gifted two kickable penalties to bring the home side back to within an unconverted try just as Glasgow had looked set to kick on.
The ebullient Fijian’s performance was equally mixed after the break, when one wonderful break was followed by an unholdable pass into Moray Low’s breadbasket. Yet in many ways Matawalu epitomises the transformation undergone by Glasgow. They remain difficult to beat, but having moved away from the tight confines of Firhill to the wide open tundras of Scotstoun, Glasgow have had to evolve into a side which takes chances.
Sure, their set-piece remains rock solid, and they can launch the multi-phase forward drives that so defined them under Sean Lineen, but this is no longer the side of Dan Parks which plays for territory and throttles the life out of opponents. That change was typified halfway through the second half when Glasgow won a penalty at the edge of Weir’s range, but skipper Al Kellock instead decided to kick down into Leinster’s territory. Nothing came of it, but it was as clear a statement of Glasgow’s intent as the picking of Matawalu. He is, in the words of the inimitable David Campese, not the sort of player who is going to die wondering.
Even without two thirds of their much-vaunted back three, Glasgow still chucked the ball around with a remarkable abandon, contributing to a helter skelter game of almost southern hemisphere entertainment values.
It was all the more remarkable given the obvious significance of this match, which pitched two of the league’s top three sides against each other with the crucial home advantage in the playoffs at stake. Glasgow’s endeavour in such circumstances was one man’s heartwarming, another’s recklessness. But it was indisputably very Townsend.