REACHING our second consecutive Guinness Pro12 final was a proud moment for all the playing and support staff at Glasgow Warriors.
Friday’s win over Ulster was a result of great endeavour and ability from our players to go through 15 phases up against an excellent defence and then a brilliant pass from Finn Russell set up DTH van der Merwe for the most important try of the 42 he has scored for the club.
Finn’s conversion was ultimately the difference between the two sides but the real source of our victory goes back much deeper and longer than that.
After a disappointing season in 2010/11 the coaching staff at the time of Sean Lineen, Shade Munro and Gary Mercer resolved to make the team tough to beat, and having suffered on too many occasions in the contact area against Leinster, a further emphasis was placed on improving the players’ efforts at the breakdown and to change their philosophy and intensity in that part of the game.
The shift in focus had immediate effect with the club conceding the fewest points at the end of the following season and with Shade setting up extra contact sessions, the changes drove the club to fourth place in the table.
It was also a World Cup year and it gave a number of young players valuable playing experience at pro level – the likes of Chris Fusaro, Rob Harley, Peter Horne, Stuart Hogg, Henry Pyrgos, Tommy Seymour and Duncan Weir.
To develop such a good defensive record that season takes more than just technique and tactics. You need a playing group that is prepared to work hard for each other and put their bodies on the line for their club. It was evident that the club had very solid foundations of a togetherness amongst the players and a work ethic to improve.
Over the last three seasons we’ve been able to build on this and see improvement on and off the field. First of all the move to Scotstoun was hugely beneficial – which has given us a true home and fantastic training and match-day facility. The club has also benefited from further investment by Scottish Rugby which has allowed us to retain and recruit key people to drive and maintain the standards on and off the field.
There is also a growing belief and higher expectations from our ever-increasing support base that really connects with the team and drives them forward in tough times. All of this has generated momentum and improvement over the last four years. We must do all we can to keep the arrow pointing upwards in the development of the club.
Getting the opportunity to play in another final is a fantastic reward for our players who started pre-season way back on 11 June 2014. Fifty-two of them have worn the Warriors jersey this year and it is their hard work on a daily basis that has generated our best ever season so far.
But it is now essential to put all of this hard work, and particularly the experience of last season’s final, into a performance of which we can all be proud.
We will certainly be better prepared for what we can expect in the final this year, and I know I have learnt a lot from the experiences of last year’s build-up. We have put that learning to good use this week in our preparations for Saturday.
But Munster are an excellent side. They have been at the top end of the table for most of the campaign and they have shown improvement throughout the season and that is a credit to their coaching staff.
They play an uncompromising brand of rugby based on getting over the gain line but they also have dangerous attackers throughout their backline. So we will need to produce our best defensive effort of the season to get close to a winning position tomorrow.
With Paul O’Connell at the heart of their set-piece play it is going to be the ultimate test for our forwards. Our scrum and lineout will have to be much improved from last week’s showing against Ulster.
Defensively Munster have one of the best records in our league so the accuracy for our strike plays and making the right decisions of when and where to attack in phase play will be important whenever we have the ball.
This will be the last game for a few of our players with some retiring and some moving on at the end of the season.
I have to say I have been blown away by the commitment and attitude of those players in these last few weeks of the season. DTH van der Merwe has done all he can to play one more time for his team and produced such a brilliant performance last week, while Jon Welsh is another who is leaving and has trained really well and it shows how much the club means to him.
But for our captain Al Kellock, pictured, for whom this will be his last game of rugby, the resilience that the team has displayed throughout the season is a reflection of the culture he has helped build at Glasgow and that will be Al’s biggest legacy at the club from his ten years here.
It has been an absolute pleasure and privilege working with this group of players over the course of the season and I wish I could have selected all 52 of them – although that might have been a bit of a disadvantage for Munster!
I believe in them all and if those not selected for Saturday had been given the opportunity to play I know they would have done all they could to help us win.
It will be great seeing the thousands of Warriors fans who will make their way to Belfast tomorrow and their support, as it has been throughout the campaign, will once more be vital to us.
It should be a cracking game.