THE Guinness Pro12 final will be an all-Ireland affair after Glasgow were felled in Galway, not so much by a squad of players as by Connacht’s deep- seated belief in their own destiny.
The teams scored one try apiece, Niyi Adeolukun for the home team, Leone Nakarawa for Glasgow, but the match was not nearly as close as the scoreboard suggests, with the TMO denying the home side two other tries.
Defending a two-point lead late in the game, Connacht also opted for the corner when presented with not one but three kickable penalties in the final quarter; utter madness in their first-ever Pro12 semi-final.
Glasgow were always going to struggle but the visitors’ cause was not helped any when Zander Fagerson and Finn Russell clashed heads attempting to tackle man of the match Bundee Aki inside the first minute.
Fagerson failed a head injury assessment but the real concern was for the stand-off who suffered some sort of facial injury, perhaps a fracture of the cheekbone, and he was surrounded by medics before leaving the action and spending Saturday night in the local hospital. He will almost certainly miss the summer tour to Japan.
Duncan Weir is his probable replacement and the same man played 79 minutes of Saturday’s match but was no more effective than anyone else in Glasgow colours. It was his last match for the Warriors, as Weir moves to Edinburgh in the off-season, along with Leone Nakarawa, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Jerry Yanuyanutawa and as Peter Horne, pictured, admitted after the game, it was not the send-off anyone wanted.
“We were distraught,” the little centre conceded. “The changing room was gutted. It’s a tough way for the boys who are leaving to be sent off. We need to get better. We need to improve and we will for next season I’m sure.
“We want to be winning every game we’re involved in. That result doesn’t sit well with us at all. But credit to Connacht, they played some great rugby and they have stuck with it all year. Today they put us under a lot of pressure and kept the scoreboard ticking over.
“There is plenty to work on and that result will definitely spur us on next season. Everyone in the dressing room knows that we can still get better by 10 or 20 per cent.
“We’ve barely fired at all this season. We blew teams away in a couple of games, but apart from that we have played in dribs and drabs.
“We’ve got more than enough firepower to compete. We just have to make sure we work really hard in the pre-season. It will be good to get everyone together right from the start, go into those dark places and work to make sure we improve and we hit the ground running at the start of next season.”
Glasgow didn’t win much ball on Saturday and they were profligate with the little possession they did get, spilling passes and failing to hold on to it long enough to stress the Connacht defence which instead flew off the line and caused the visitors no end of problems.
In the absence of Alex Dunbar the Glasgow midfield trio, Weir, Horne and Mark Bennett, had their hands full attempting to deal with the brute physical force of nature that is Aki and his centre partner Robbie Henshaw; a Connacht player for one more game just before joining next Saturday’s opponents Leinster. The final will be an interesting 80 minutes for him.
Connacht thoroughly deserved their victory and the final is too close to call. For so long the poor country cousin of Irish rugby, the men from Galway now have a rare opportunity to lift some silverware and, as Horne admits, on Saturday’s form they are a tough nut for anyone to crack.
“They stick to their shape. They play wide-wide and it is tough to defend at times. I think we did pretty well but there was that one score where the guy wriggled out of a couple of tackles. They were piling guys in, making the breakdown a mess. They play a really good brand of rugby.
“They did well to keep hold of the ball and we weren’t getting anything at the breakdown, for whatever reason. If they are keeping hold of the ball and not making any mistakes it is bloody tough to get it off them.”
Leinster will start as favourites but only a fool would bet against Connacht who have proved what is possible when a good coach breathes belief into a handy squad of players.
Glasgow will lick their wounds and, while it is tempting to say they will be stronger for Saturday’s setback, that is not necessarily true.