Glasgow and Connacht both fielded dramatically weakened teams on Friday evening and both clubs were facing Italian opposition, but that is where any similarities come to an abrupt halt. Glasgow scored ten tries against Zebre to record their biggest ever victory in the Celtic League while Connacht went down to a last-minute penalty against Treviso. The two teams will still play off next Saturday with a home semi-final for the winner.
Not for the first time this season the benefit of having Italian teams in the Pro12 has been called into question and, after the way they performed on Friday, you fancy Heriot’s or Ayr would run Zebre close. I take nothing away from Ali Price but the scrum-half scored directly from a Zebre re-start, which simply should not happen. I have seen harder tackles in games of touch. It was woeful and I’d guess that Conor O’Shea has one season to persuade Italian rugby’s governing body, the FIR, to strengthen Zebre and Treviso before the Pro12 becomes the Pro10.
Glasgow didn’t even play that well, certainly not in the opening quarter when they faffed about, luring Zebre into the illusion that they were vaguely competitive. Taquele Naiyaravoro’s defence relies upon the threat of his enormous size rather than actually using that physique to any effect. His signing wasn’t a complete disaster but Glasgow fans would welcome DTH van der Merwe back in a heartbeat.
Still, head coach Gregor Townsend remains in recruitment credit not least because he snapped up Leone Nakarawa. If there is a better lock on a dry day, I’ve yet to see him.
Nakarawa leaves the club for Racing 92 this summer and Glasgow are going to miss him like they’ve lost a limb. The Fijian spoke warmly about the welcome he has received in the city and the entire Scotstoun crowd stood as one to salute the man when he was replaced late in the game. The club let him go with one year left on his contract and he may believe that he owes them because Nakarawa seems determined to go out with a bang.
He scored a hat-trick of tries but created, with his uncanny ability to offload in the heaviest of traffic, at least three more scores. It is fair to say that whoever selected the man of the match didn’t have to scratch their chin for long.
“This was my first professional contract,” the big Fijian said after the match, “and the players here are more than my team-mates, they are like my little brothers and I’m going to miss them. But opportunities come round in rugby, and it’s a short career, so when an opportunity comes you take it. Winning the Pro12 this season would be quite an emotional one for me. It’s my last time here with my team-mates, with the boys, and I want to end on a high before leaving.”
Nakarawa’s brilliance is that he makes something happen almost every time he touches the ball. Rugby’s bane is the fact that, with the obvious exception of Friday night, defences are pretty well organised these days and fans have to endure countless phases that entail someone crashing into someone else with little to show for it. Unless, of course, you boast Nakarawa in your line-up.
Not only can the Fijian do the donkey work – the carrying, the tackling, the set-piece stuff and hitting those rucks – but has a unique ability to suck in defenders and still get the ball away in the tackle; think Paul O’Connell blessed with Michael Jordan’s hands.
He weaved his magic against the less-than-dynamic defence offered by Zebre on Friday night but we witnessed him do the exact same in the highly charged, ultra competitive environment that was 2015 Rugby World Cup and he was one of the few Glasgow players who never suffered a World Cup hangover. Plenty of others did, which was partly why Glasgow found themselves in a lowly eighth place in February before stringing together nine wins on the bounce.
“We didn’t lose hope,” Nakarawa says of that league low point. “We managed to come back as a team. I can remember the last time we lost...against Ulster away. After the game we agreed: that’s the last time we’re going to lose.
“We’ve worked together as a team, and you can see the result. That’s [still] the last defeat, and we’re going to keep on winning.
“Tonight is gone, it’s history now. We’ll come back on Monday and work on the small things. In the second half we were a bit casual in how we played. We’ll pick that up next week, working on small things, especially in defence, and we’ll be ready for next week against Connacht. They will be a tough team to beat.”
Tougher than Zebre were, that much is certain.