THIS was the procession before the main event for Glasgow Warriors. They scored their first try after just 47 seconds, had the bonus point wrapped up in 18 minutes, and had crossed the whitewash six times with just over half an hour played.
Glasgow 54-0 Zebre
Scorers: Glasgow: Tries: Hogg 2, Grant, Kellock, Dunbar, Matawalu 2, Hall; Con: Weir 6, Jackson
At that point it looked like all sorts of records could tumble, but then the heavens opened which severely inhibited the pace and fluidity of the home team’s attacking play and they managed only two more touchdowns in a rather less exhilarating second half.
A first-ever home play-off semi-final for the Warriors has now been secured and they will go into that match against Munster on Friday evening bursting with confidence after winning eight matches on the bounce.
Gregor Townsend reported after the game that he had no new injury concerns. Chris Fusaro picked up a leg knock and Stuart Hogg was replaced at half-time due to a stiff back, but both players are expected to be fighting fit and raring to go by the time Munster come calling.
Townsend has rotated his squad expertly during this league run-in, and with key men Hogg, Sean Lamont, Alex Dunbar and Peter Horne all now fully back in the selection mix after missing large chunks of the previous few months, he will select his team from a group of players who are all remarkably fresh for this stage of the season.
Recent form and home advantage would point to the Warriors being favourites to win Friday’s game and make it into the grand final for the first time ever, but anyone who doesn’t believe that Munster will raise their game for this clash has not been paying attention during the last ten to 15 years.
“It’s going to be really tough. We watched them against Toulon and they played really well, and against Toulouse the week before we played them they were outstanding. They are the type of team that plays really well on the big occasion,” pointed out Townsend.
“When it comes to games like this, they are always going to be competitive until the final whistle. And they’ve got some outstanding players as well. They’ve scored the most tries this season and have some big players back from injury like Casy Lualala.
“Simon Zebo has been playing really well recently as well and then there is the strength of the pack which has traditionally been one of the best around.” The message from Townsend and his players after the match was clear and repeated on several occasions. They want a full house at Scotstoun, and it would be jolly good if Warriors supporters heavily outnumbered Munster’s famously passionate army of fans.
Given that 600 tickets had been bought within hours of the end of this game, while 2,700 spaces have been reserved for season-ticket holders, and 120,000 individuals on the SRU mailing list have been sent in internet link for early purchase, it is entirely conceivable that the public sale which is scheduled for tomorrow might not be required. Munster have already got their allocation available through Ticketmaster.
“It is an opportunity for our fans to buy as many tickets as possible before they go on general release. It would be great if we fill this place up with predominantly Glasgow supporters. It is a semi-final and we are up against one of the best supported teams in Europe. They bring a big travelling support and it should be a cracking atmosphere,” said Townsend.
“It’s fantastic for our club, fantastic for rugby in the west of Scotland and for the players themselves. They deserve it. I think it is 36 players we have used in an eight-game period and they have stood up and played well against some of the best players in Europe,” he added.
The Warriors announced their intentions in this match in emphatic style straight from kick-off, when they secured possession, went through two quick phases, and launched a box kick which Lamont plucked out of the air. The ball was then delivered back infield before Hogg collected a deft one-handed offload out of contact from Pat MacArthur, powered past one tackle and sidestepped his way past another for the first of his two scores.
It is a shame that Zebre’s ineptitude throughout the remainder of the first half would ultimately undermine the craftsmanship of that first score – because it was a thing of beauty. Try number two came when Leone Nakawara had the presence of mind and silky handling skills to pop a one-handed pass off the deck for Ryan Grant to power over, and the feebleness of Treviso’s defending reached a comical crescendo when Al Kellock collected a line-out and somehow found himself in acres of space before his team-mates even had time to form a maul around him. The Warriors skipper looked like a startled rabbit caught in the headlights at first, but recovered his senses in time to stretch over the line for his team’s third try, without having to overcome anything approaching a challenge from his now disinterested opponents.
Hogg then grabbed his second and his team’s fourth try. It was the second-fastest bonus point in Celtic League history, taking just a few seconds longer than Ulster needed to grab four tries when they hammered the Border Reivers back in May 2006.
Dunbar charged clear for touchdown number five before, finally, after 31 minutes, a Warriors player had to overcome some real competition when scoring a try. Sadly, the challenge didn’t come from an opponent but one of the scorer’s team-mates.
When Hogg hacked the ball into the in-goal area, there was not a Zebre player in sight and the full-back looked a certainty to grab his hat-trick try. Niko Matawalu had other ideas, however, and launched a thrilling footrace against his Warriors team-mate. It was nip and tuck as both players dived for the ball, but the little Fijian got his hand in first. Such was his momentum that after grabbing the score he hurtled over the dead ball-line and into the advertisement boards – as a clearly disgruntled Hogg stomped back to the halfway line.
That made it 40-0 with just half an hour played. At that rate it seemed to be entirely possible that the Warriors might chalk up a century. Only two things would stop this happening: a change in the weather or an easing up by the home team. In the end, both these factors came into play.
The heavens opened a few minutes before half-time, and although the deluge eased off after the break, the rain persisted throughout the remainder of the match.
The Warriors did not add to their account until the game had entered its final quarter, and this score was of a far more industrial nature than previous efforts, with Geoff Cross (who must wake up every morning and thank his lucky stars that he was deemed surplus to requirements at Edinburgh and sent out on loan to the Warriors until the end of the season, before moving to London Irish during the summer) being given credit for grounding the ball under a pile of bodies.
Matawalu eventually brought up the half century with just four minutes left to play, when he picked up off the deck and slalomed home from about 15 yards.
Glasgow: S Hogg (P Murchie 40); S Lamont, A Dunbar, P Horne, N Matawalu; D Weir, H Pyrgos (L Jones 60); R Grant (J Yanuyanutawa 50), P MacArthur (D Hall 55), M Low (G Cross 55), T Swinson (R Harly 65), A Kellock. J Eddie, C Fusaro (T Holmes 50), L Nakarawa..
Zebre: D Odiete (A Chillon 40); G Toniolatti, G Garcia, D Berryman; T Iannone, G Palazzani; S Perugini (M Aguero 40), D Giazzon (T D’Apice 40), D Christolini (D Ryan 37), Q Geldenhuys, M Botrolami (G Biagi 46), M Bergamasco (E Caffini 77), A van Schalkwyk (F Ferrarini 8, Cristiano 60), S Vunisa.