Asemi-final can be a tense affair, more nerve-racking than a final. Glasgow’s visit to Galway for their last league match two weeks ago was actually a bit like a preliminary semi. Both teams knew that victory would secure them a home tie in the real semi, and, while it might be an exaggeration to say that Glasgow froze, there were signs that players weren’t thinking as clearly as they usually do. Well, they’ve had a fortnight to brood and learn the lessons. They seemed to be taken aback by the ferocity of Connacht’s rush defence, players in midfield often receiving ball and tackler simultaneously. When Finn Russell tried a couple of times to chip the ball behind this advancing defensive line, the idea was good, but the execution wasn’t quite right. One had the suspicion that, on a few occasions, that the Connacht midfield started from an offside position, but this is quite usual nowadays. Referees, generally alert to the possibility of offside near the breakdown, don’t seem to police the midfield as strictly. In self-defence they might observe that they don’t have eyes in the back of their head. They do, however, have assistants on the touchline who are in the best position to spot offside in midfield. There’s little point in legislators issuing decrees about offside if match officials pay as little heed to this as referees almost invariably do to that other law which declares that the ball must be put in straight at the scrum.
A fortnight ago, Glasgow were also too often sloppy at the breakdown, affording their young scrum-half Ali Price very little protection. Andy Nicol was quite critical of his performance; I thought that, in the circumstances, he did pretty well. But if Glasgow are to win today, they surely have to tidy up this part of their game.
Being reduced to 14 men for the last half-hour didn’t help, of course, but thereafter Glasgow again didn’t seem to think as clearly as they usually do. They made little use of the strong wind behind them and so played far less of the game deep in Connacht territory than they should have done.
It was a disappointing defeat because, while Connacht are a very good team, one is pretty sure that, day-in day-out, Glasgow are a better one. It’s reasonable to say: cut out the mistakes and you’ll win today.
This may be so, but, bearing Connacht’s voracious defence in mind, they may have to play a different sort of game, one that asks other questions to make Connacht question themselves. The great American tennis champion Bill Tilden had an axiom: “never change a winning game; always change a losing one”. The Champions Cup final between Saracens and Racing92 offered a good example of the truth of this. It was a decidedly turgid affair, but Saracens, who won comfortably, were not to blame. They happened on a winning formula, with Owen Farrell and Richard Wigglesworth repeatedly pinning Racing back with astute and accurate kicking. In contrast, Racing persisted with trying to barge through and, even when they enjoyed a period of ascendancy, had no other idea than pick, go and drive. The trouble with the pick-and-go tactic is that you nearly always lose the ball eventually, or concede a penalty for holding on at the tackle.
No matter how intelligently Saracens played in that final, it really wasn’t much of an advertisement for northern hemisphere rugby. Admittedly, there were ten minutes of very heavy rain in the first half, and the ball was wet; nevertheless, no tries were scored and there were very few moments when a try seemed likely. Glasgow and Connacht will surely serve up better entertainment. There will be intense commitment from both sides but such commitment doesn’t necessarily exclude enterprise and imagination. I would guess that Glasgow want to move the Connacht pack about the field, especially in the first half. Their own game is based on pace, off-loading and support but, if they are to win, the handling must be more secure than in the last encounter.
Glasgow have had a remarkable season, given the international calls on their players. Their nine-match winning streak ended two weeks ago, but they have enough ability all over the field to take the opportunity of a final at Murrayfield. It will be hard going because Connacht, too, have had a season to remember. Their achievement has also been remarkable, all the more so when you consider how a dozen years or so ago, the IRFU were eager to close the club down.
Let’s hope the sun shines, the rain stays out in the Atlantic and the wind doesn’t blow, or not too hard anyway.