GLASGOW got the defence of their Guinness Pro12 crown up and running with an ultimately fraught 33-32 victory over Connacht on a topsy turvy night at Scotstoun which saw Hugh Blake do what you might call a ‘reverse Vernon’.
The young New Zealand-born back-row forward made his first appearance in a Warriors jersey but he did so in the unexpected position of outside centre, coming off the bench early to replace injured captain Peter Murchie.
Blake made his Test debut against Ireland last month on the same day that fellow Warrior Richie Vernon made history by becoming the first man since the 19th century to be capped in both the forwards and backs after converting from flanker to centre nearly two years ago. Last night the 23-year-old Blake found himself going in the opposite direction.
There were a few quizzical looks when the announcement was made that Murchie was being replaced by Blake, with Chris Fusaro taking over as skipper, but sure enough there he was taking his place in the midfield.
Warriors coach Gregor Townsend has never been one to shy away from a left-field decision and, with the club particularly short of backs during the World Cup period, he decided the man who finished last season in the national sevens set-up could do a job in the midfield. He certainly didn’t look out of place on a night when Glasgow saw a 30-6 lead almost overhauled by a remarkable second-half rally from the visitors.
The score was 3-3 when Blake made his arrival, Jack Carty of Connacht and Rory Clegg, the young Englishman on a short-term contract, exchanging penalties.
The Irish province, who have only lost a couple of players to the Test arena, were the better side in the early exchanges and had a couple of opportunities to score, a foot in touch costing them down the right.
Following last week’s 16-10 home defeat to Scarlets the last thing the champions wanted was more points to slip away and Glasgow slowly settled into the game – the boot of Clegg edged them six points ahead at 9-3 before they got the first try of the night.
Full-back Glenn Bryce made the breach on the left after the home side’s first sustained period of phase play, Clegg adding the extras.
The lead was extended further when the Warriors drove Connacht back towards their own line and lock Scott Cummings forced himself over for his first try.
Clegg was again successful with the boot and, although Carty pegged back a penalty before the interval, the hosts went in with a healthy lead of 23-6.
Emerging from the break, the home three-quarter line was further stretched with the loss of Fijian winger Junior Bulumakau, whose debut ended after 40 minutes and he was replaced by Scott Wight.
Any hopes the visitors had of making inroads back into the game seemed gone when scrum-half John Cooney botched a kick from a lineout and blindside Rob Harley eagerly gobbled up the loose ball to stroll in at the posts, Clegg’s conversion taking the score up to the 30-point mark.
But Cooney’s spell in the doghouse was short-lived, however, as he made amends by finishing off a slick move on the left and Carty converted to cut the deficit to 17 points.
Townsend rung the changes again when he replaced his entire starting front row of Alex Allan, Pat MacArthur and Mike Cusack with Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Kevin Bryce and Zander Fagerson.
Cusack didn’t get much time to put his feet up on the bench as Fagerson was sin-binned for a scrum infringement in the Glasgow 22 and Cummings was sacrificed. Connacht were rated the best performing scrum in the league last term and they were living up to that billing as they turned the screw, Welsh referee Ian Davies lost patience and the penalty try was awarded.
It was the visiting set-piece which was doing the damage and getting the visiting tails up to such an extent that uneasiness spread throughout Scotstoun. That became minor panic when a kick ahead was collected by left winger Fionn Carr for a third try. The conversion was missed but the home lead had been slashed to just five points.
Glasgow managed to reassert themselves and got back on the attack, coming close to pushing over but Connacht managed to hold them up. A penalty soon followed and Clegg maintained his 100 per cent record with the boot to make it 33-25 and push the now fragile lead beyond a converted try. It proved crucial as Connacht drove over again, flanker Nepia Fox-Matamua grounding, and Carty’s wide conversion making it a one-point game. The last few minutes were tense, but Glasgow held on.
Glasgow: G Bryce; J Bulumakau, P Murchie, F Lyle, L Jones; R Clegg, M Blair; A Allan, P MacArthur, M Cusack, S Cummings, K Low, R Harley, C Fusaro, A Ashe. Subs: K Bryce, J Yanuyanutawa, Z Fagerson, J Eddie, T Holmes, H Blake, G Hart, S Wight.
Connacht: T O’Halloran; D Poolman, R Parata, B Aki, F Carr; J Carty, J Cooney; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Browne, J Muldoon, N Fox-Matamua, E Masterson. Subs: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, F Bealham, U Dillane, B Marshall, K Marmion, C Ronaldson, S O’Leary.