Glasgow skipper Kellock wants fast start in Dublin

Al Kellock was voted captain of the RaboDirect dream team, but a final place means more. Picture: SNS
Al Kellock was voted captain of the RaboDirect dream team, but a final place means more. Picture: SNS
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GLASGOW skipper Alastair Kellock wears the look of a man floating on a cloud, but it pales against the feelings he will experience should his beloved Warriors finally break the Leinster barrier tonight and reach a first RaboDirect PRO12 Final.

The lock was last week voted the best in his position and top captain in the league, anointed skipper for the second time of the RaboDirect PRO12 Dream Team. It came just days after his wife had given birth to their second child, a first son, Ruaridh, and the announcement that he would be part of Scotland’s tour to South Africa.

Kellock might have signed his final contract for Glasgow but the rewards of a long career battling for recognition are not stopping. The one he would prize more than any other, on the rugby field at least, is this one tonight, and one sensed, as he spoke of how he hoped Glasgow would take the fight to Leinster in the RDS Sportground in a way Leo Cullen’s troops have never experienced, that victory tonight would even eclipse selection for the Scotland tour.

Kellock has been here twice before, and lost, to the Ospreys in 2010 and Leinster this time last year. The Warriors have new armoury, with Sean Maitland adding pace and ingenuity to the burgeoning skills of Stuart Hogg and DTH van der Merwe. Fijian Niko Matawalu has brought the ‘X Factor’ to Glasgow and Josh Strauss added a new punch, which has all given Glasgow new ways to get on the front foot not available a year ago.

Head coach Gregor Townsend has also tweaked the mindset, and his boldness is visible again with a move for Peter Horne to stand-off for this high-pressure match. Horne has terrific skills and confidence, but his ability to influence the game will rest heavily on the pack’s performance and support he receives on the ball, because Leinster will send the big guns in to test his mettle.

Ruaridh Jackson may still be the match-winner, as Leinster have a tendency to drop off late in games, and so the strength of the Glasgow bench is another plus for Warriors supporters. According to Kellock, all of that has fuelled a greater belief since the sides met last year.

“The signings have been terrific,” he said, “up there in the top ten per cent of our players all season in terms of the performances they have put in, and, to a man, we’re probably all playing better than we did last year; playing in a confident fashion, playing good rugby. I love the balance we’ve got at the moment. It’s not forward-orientated or backs-orientated; there is a real good mix.

“Leinster were definitely the best team in Europe at that stage last year, but I believe we are much, much closer now. The way we have played this season means we have closed that gap. We’ve got going with belief.

“But we have talked about last year and the fact that we maybe sat back to see how good they were. You sit back for 40 or 50 minutes and then all of a sudden you realise you can beat these guys. We have had games already this season where we have let the opposition dominate us or dictate the first 20 or 30 minutes, and it never ends well. So we know what we’ve got to do.”

That goes to the nub of what separates winners and the valiant losers at this level, belief, but that is hardly visionary. Kellock and his team-mates knew they could not afford to sit back and let Leinster dominate early last year, yet they did exactly that before scrambling back to an agonising 19-15 deficit at the finish.

So the key is perhaps the depth of that belief, allied to an improved ability to execute the game-plan, as Glasgow seek to overcome a Leinster team that started the season slowly but have shown, with convincing wins over Ospreys and Biarritz, in recent weeks that they remain one of the most skilled sides in Europe.

Gordon D’Arcy is also back after a calf injury to partner Brian O’Driscoll, ensuring there will be pressure on French referee Pascal Gauzere to marshall the breakdown clearly, while former Ulster scrum-half Isaac Boss links up with Jonathan Sexton, and Isa Nacewa, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden present their own potent back three to Glasgow’s exciting trio. Up front, explosive flanker Sean O’Brien (calf) is a doubt, so Shane Jennings is on stand-by, while 6ft 10in lock Devin Toner makes his 125th Leinster appearance.

Their team is similar to last year’s, with O’Driscoll and Kearney added, and it will not want for motivation. Joe Schmidt, the master Kiwi tactician, leaves for the Ireland hotseat this summer, and O’Driscoll is contemplating retirement, and there is the fact that they have lost the last three finals in a row, so have not claimed the Celtic title since 2008.

So expect them to explode from the traps this evening, desperate to score tries early on, and then play patiently, show why they are the best in the league at keeping ball, invite mistakes from an under-pressure Glasgow and allow Sexton to knock over penalties to widen the deficit and increase frustration levels in the Scots.

Glasgow’s hopes rest with breaking that familiar Leinster pattern. Kellock added: “We have to match that in the first 20 minutes and make them ask themselves ‘what do we do next?’

“But it is also about not going into our shells. Possibly in semi-final rugby, in big games, when it doesn’t go perfectly for the first five minutes, you have a tendency to step back and then take another step back.

“We have talked about that and we cannot do that. We move forward, we go to the next phase, think about what our strengths are; think about what we’ve done well. That’s what you go back to.

“We have beaten some of Europe’s best teams pretty well this season. We are in a different place to where we were before.”

Leinster

15 R Kearney

14 F McFadden

13 B O’Driscoll

12 G D’Arcy

11 I Nacewa

10 J Sexton

9 I Boss

1 C Healy

2 R Strauss

3 M Ross

4 L Cullen (capt)

5 D Toner

6 K McLaughlin

7 S O’Brien/S Jennings

8 J Heaslip

Subs

16 S Cronin

17 J McGrath

18 J Hagan

19 Q Roux

20 S Jennings/R Ruddock

21 J Cooney

22 I Madigan

23 A Conway

Glasgow

15 S Hogg

14 S Maitland

13 S Lamont

12 A Dunbar

11 D Van der Merwe

10 P Horne

9 N Matawalu

1 R Grant

2 P MacArthur

3 J Welsh

4 T Swinson

5 A Kellock (capt)

6 J Strauss

7 J Barclay

8 R Wilson

Subs

16 F Brown

17 M Low

18 E Kalman

19 T Ryder

20 R Harley

21 H Pyrgos

22 R Jackson

23 M Bennett