THE sun was out, George Square was chock-a-block with flag -waving supporters, and the Glasgow Warriors squad were all in fine fettle as they arrived at the party on an open-top bus yesterday evening to attend a civic reception at the City Chambers in honour of their achievement in becoming the first Scottish professional rugby team to win a trophy worth more than its value in scrap metal.
It was 13 days after Gregor Townsend’s side ripped Munster apart during a sensational first half of this season’s Guinness Pro12 Grand Final in Belfast to secure a famous 31-13 victory – but the feelgood factor has clearly not diminished with the passing of time.
Scottish pro rugby has waited long enough for a good reason to pat itself on the back – and now that the moment has arrived everyone involved in the club is clearly determined to make the most of it. Retiring club captain Al Kellock said as much during his valedictory speech to the gathered throng and was greeted with a roar of approval for doing so.
But there is also a clear determination within the squad that this achievement should not be an end in itself, rather a launch-pad to even bigger and better things – with a stronger showing in Europe a key objective for next season.
And this quest for continental glory received a big boost yesterday afternoon when it was confirmed that the Warriors would be among the top seeds in next Wednesday’s Champions Cup draw – although it should be remembered that they were in a similar situation last season and still ended up in a killer pool alongside Bath, Montpellier and Toulouse.
Before that challenge comes along, however, there is the small matter of Scotland’s World Cup campaign, which could feature a remarkable 22 Warriors players. That is how many members of their roster made Vern Cotter’s 46-man extended training squad which will start their preparation for the tournament on Monday morning – and given the magnificent way the boys from the west finished this season’s campaign, it seems inevitable that a sizable majority of that Warriors contingent will make the cut when the final 31 for the tournament is named at the end of August.
One man who – barring injury – is absolutely certain to be involved in the World Cup is stand-off Finn Russell, who had already established himself as the national team’s key playmaker well before a storming end-of-season run elevated his status to a level comparable to John Rutherford during his pomp in the early 1980s.
Russell scored 22 points, including two tries, in the Warriors’ emphatic victory over Ulster in the final match of the regular season which ensured they finished the campaign top of the Pro12 table. He then showed great composure to create a try for winger DTH van der Merwe to level the scores with just four minutes to go of their play-off semi-final (also against Ulster), before slotting a nerveless touchline conversion which won the match. And to top it all off, he scored the decisive try which killed off any hope Munster had of making a comeback in the Grand Final.
“This time last year I knew it [making the World Cup squad] was achievable. I’d already got my first cap. But the last 18 months have been massive. A lot has changed in that time and I’m loving every moment of it,” said the 22-year-old.
“It was a good way to finish the season with the World Cup coming up, so hopefully I can carry that on into the tournament, if selected,” he added.
The national squad could really do with some of the positive energy which is emanating from the Warriors squad at the moment. After promising summer and autumn campaigns under Cotter, the Kiwi coach’s stock came crashing back down to earth during this year’s Six Nations when they failed to pick up a single victory.
Russell was not immune to the disappointments of that campaign. The two-week ban he controversially received after clashing in the air with Wales’ Dan Biggar was perhaps a blessing in disguise, because it meant he missed Scotland’s ignominious defeat to Italy, but it was a tough pill to swallow at the time.
At least it meant he could speak from experience as he comforted younger brother, Archie, who received a two-week ban of his own while playing for the Scotland under-20 team against their New Zealand counterparts at the Junior World Cup in Italy last Tuesday.
“I think he was just trying to copy me,” he said with a smile, before dutifully sticking up for his younger sibling. “It was a tough decision on him. It was for a tip tackle but the guy sort of jumped into him, so it was one of these things. I wouldn’t say either one of them was to blame – these things just happen in games and the guy didn’t get injured. So I think a two-week ban was pretty tough considering he couldn’t do anything about it.
“There are only five games in the World Cup so to miss two of them is pretty tough. Hopefully he’ll get selected for the next couple of games and get stuck in and show what he can do.”