Today’s Guinness Pro final at Murrayfield isn’t what we hoped it would be. To be honest, it isn’t what we thought it would be. It’s a tribute to the quality and achievements of Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow that we expected they would beat Connacht in Galway. It’s not often in the last 20 years that we have had such confidence in a Scottish team, and this makes it all the more disappointing that they fell short.
One should first say that they did so because Connacht played outstandingly well, both in the last league match which got them that home semi-final, and then in the semi itself. They played with rare verve, commitment and skill, and they squeezed the life out of Glasgow. They may do the same to Leinster today, and many of us will hope they win. Given that they have always been the poor relations in Irish rugby, a victory for Pat Lam’s team would be a bit like Leicester City winning the English Premier League.
Connacht deserved to win both matches, and but for recourse to the TMO they would have won the semi by a bigger margin. One wonders if referees have come to rely excessively on the fourth official. Connacht scored what looked like a good try. The referee then asked for a check on a possible knock-on at about the halfway line. Mightn’t it have been better if he had called the knock-on when it happened? Perhaps it would, but then one thinks of an incident in the Champions Cup semi-final between Racing92 and Leicester when Nigel Owens blew for a knock-on as the Racing winger ran away to score a try, only for the TV replay to show there had been no knock-on, leaving Mr Owens to say “my mistake, I’m very sorry”. So there’s no easy answer.
Glasgow had more than their share of ill-luck. The first-minute injury which cost them Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson was unsettling. The loss of Russell was damaging because, with all due respect for Duncan Weir, Russell was more likely than his replacement to find a means of unlocking Connacht’s defence. Even more costly was the serious injury to Alex Dunbar in the first half of the league match. Peter Horne and Mark Bennett are both very talented players, but neither has Dunbar’s ability to knock his man back in the tackle and stop an attack dead. And that ability was needed against Connacht.
So Glasgow have to lick their wounds and re-group, and Townsend has to find an answer to a very difficult question: how on earth do you replace a player like Leone Nakarawa? Finding an answer to that may determine Glasgow’s chances of success next season.
If Glasgow’s defeat was surprising, the Scotland Sevens’ triumph in London was a shock, but a very happy one. The coach Calum Macrae deserves a lot of credit. He has moulded a squad of players, many of whom have been discarded by Glasgow or Edinburgh, into a very skilful and formidable unit; no mean achievement. The last two minutes of the final when they improbably scored two tries to snatch the Cup from South Africa were extraordinary. It’s only a year since the SRU were thinking of scrapping the Sevens squad, therefore withdrawing from the IRB’s World series of tournaments. Red faces in the boardroom?
One sometimes wonders whether in the not-very-distant future Sevens may become more popular than the XV-a-side game, just as in cricket T20 is more popular than all but the very best Test cricket. Sevens appeals at all levels, and I would think that parents who fear that the XV-a-side game is becoming more brutal and dangerous would prefer their children only to play the short game. Any shift to Sevens won’t happen yet, principally because there are no domestic Sevens leagues. But that may come.
Meanwhile Scotland will soon be off for their two Tests in Japan. This will be a tough encounter, though not as arduous as the summer ventures being undertaken by Wales, Ireland and England. All the same I wonder if it is desirable. Of course it’s a good thing that we should play internationals in Japan – as in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Nevertheless, given the length of the season just finishing here, from the World Cup warm-up internationals last August, I would rather the players were putting their feet up, relaxing in the garden, or on the golf-course or beach. Johnny Gray, for one, seemed to be running on empty against Connacht, kept going by willpower. He is still a very young man and we mustn’t flog him to death. Tommy Seymour is another who has lost his sparkle at the tail-end of the season. We ask a lot of the top players; we have to be careful that the demands made aren’t excessive.