THERE are no sacred cows in this Glasgow Warriors squad. It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past or which pay bracket you are in, selection is based purely on the contribution you can make to the team on any given matchday.
So, despite leading the side through thick and thin these last eight years, Al Kellock was as edgy as any other member of the squad on Tuesday morning as he awaited news as to whether he had made the cut for the biggest game in the club’s history.
In fact, the big lock had more reason to fear the worst than many of his team-mates given that he has had to play third or fourth fiddle for much of this season to the league’s young player of the year Jonny Gray, the wonderfully rambunctious Tim Swinson and Fijian livewire Leone Nakarawa .
With Kellock playing a full 80 minutes against Zebre last weekends in what looked very much like a shadow side, there was a nagging suspicion amongst Warriors followers that their captain might miss out this week. It would have been a cruel outcome for the club’s greatest servant, but an entirely justified decision by head coach Gregor Townsend.
When Kellock spoke with his usual candour and common sense after that match about how important it would be for the players who had not been selected to get behind the matchday 22, it felt as if he was maybe paving the way for a typically selfless response to some bad news he saw looming over the horizon. So, how did he feel on Tuesday morning when he got the thumbs up from Townsend?
“I wouldn’t say it was relief. I was in exactly the same position as the others. I’d done everything I could to get into the team, but in saying that, everything I could do this season has been a wee bit staggered – a lot due to injury,” said Kellock. “I was out for four months from December to March and there were guys taking their opportunities, with young Jonny playing exceptionally well. Then I came back and was training and playing as well as I could but there were no guarantees I’d be playing this week. Gregor got it [the team selection] out as early as he could so there was time to digest it, deal with it and refocus. It was a very difficult time because so many guys had done so well. I don’t think there was anybody coming in 100 per cent sure they were playing and that is credit to the guys.
“I have to say the guys who did not get picked have been outstanding this week. Very quickly it was all about making sure that the team won. You could see that in their training performances, and they were staying out doing extras, like fitness on Tuesday afternoon, so that they were still fit for this game and the final if we get there.”
While Kellock might not be seen as dynamic as Swinson and Nakarawa, Townsend was at pains to stress yesterday that his selection alongside Gray is based on more than just his undoubted leadership skills. “There are two aspects, the experience and leadership and also the rugby side. His set-piece is good. He is a very good tackler, up there with the best in the stats. We have to win ball and Al is really experienced in the lineout. It is a competitive position and Tim [Swinson] and Leone [Nakarawa] can count themselves unlucky,” said the coach.
But there is no doubt that his wealth of experience was a factor. This will be his fourth play-off appearance, and the previous three disappointments have only served to reinforce his belief that the team are now ready to make the next step. “I can’t speak for anyone else but I certainly feel like that. When we were making the play-offs four years ago, that was a huge achievement in itself with the squad numbers that we had and the budget that we had, but now we are in a far better place. Undoubtedly you have to earn your right to be in every semi-final but I feel there is still more to come from us. We have played very well and done some exceptionally good things. In the past, I didn’t feel before the match like we had peaked, but looking back you can see that was as good as we could have been that season. I believe that if we are as good as we can be this season then it could be something really special.”
There has been an unusual vibe around Scotstoun this week – apparent self-belief. During long years of mediocrity and failure, Scottish rugby has developed a debilitating inferiority complex. It sometimes feels as if we are apologetic about even daring to challenge our esteemed rivals from across the Irish Sea. But this Warriors team have made a conscious decision to celebrate their potential.
Kellock added: “I spoke to the boys today about nerves being a good thing. Nerves are part of big games. There is a tendency occasionally not to think about the game because that is when those emotions and nerves come in, but in my experience it is best to think about them and deal with them because that is how you come out the other side. If you don’t, if you put it to the back of your mind because that is the easiest place for it to be, then you pitch up and it takes you by surprise. Embrace the feelings you have got. So, we talk about how well we have done. In the past maybe we’d have talked about how they don’t respect us but I don’t believe we are underdogs playing on our own park after winning eight in a row.
“They are coming over here to chuck everything at us and see if it’s good enough. We know — personally and as a club — how good Munster are and how much success they’ve had over the last 10-12 years. But what I really like is that we can focus on ourselves, concentrate on making sure we play the best rugby we can and, if we get to that level, I believe we will win.”