Edinburgh grabbed the headlines with their run in the Heineken Cup but it’s the quiet, consistent success of their less-flashy rivals at the other end of the M8 that is really worth shouting about
THE Glasgow players would not be human if they didn’t feel just the occasional pang of bitterness about the inequitable distribution of talent and glory that is meted out by the gods of rugby. Their east coast rivals have hoovered up all the publicity, with yesterday’s Heineken quarter-final played out in front of a Scottish club record crowd at Murrayfield despite the fact that Glasgow have been by far and away the better of Scotland’s two pro-teams this season.
Over the following month the Warriors have an opportunity to make their own mark, this time in the Pro 12 league where it’s tight at the top – well, just below the top. With Leinster ten points ahead of the second-placed Ospreys, four clubs are chasing the remaining three play-off places, although the Scarlets are not out of the running, just four points adrift of Ulster in sixth place.
The Ospreys look to have the easier run-in, with ties against the Blues, the Dragons and bottom fishers Aironi, who are soon to be disbanded and replaced. Glasgow have matches against Treviso (away) and Connacht (at Firhill) but much of their season will depend on what happens on Saturday evening in Cork’s Musgrave Park when they face the might of Munster, with whom they are tied on points: the Irishmen are ahead by dint of having 12 wins to Glasgow’s 11.
“We beat Munster at Musgrave Park on the last day of the season back in 2008 so the place holds no fears for us, although obviously Munster are a very strong side,” says Glasgow skipper Al Kellock.
“Sean [Lineen] was looking for a specific number of points from the five matches when players were away at the Six Nations and we got them with three wins and two draws but from now on we’ll take each match on its own merits and the Munster game is a cup final.”
Kellock hopes to Munster Munster, to do to the Irish what they have been doing to almost everyone else for the last decade or more, squeezing the life from them and using the best defence in the league to do it. The best form of attack is defence, if you like. Under the auspices of the soon-to-depart Kiwi specialist Gary Mercer, Glasgow have leaked just 19 league tries to date, two fewer than the next best team and a whopping 29 fewer than Edinburgh.
Plenty has already been written on the many differences between Scotland’s two main cities and one more can now be added to that long list... rugby philosophy. Edinburgh play to entertain, Glasgow play to win. That is an obvious simplification but it bears some scrutiny.
This Glasgow side does not score many tries but they don’t have to. To borrow from football, they win from the back: the Warriors are a difficult team to break down and the narrow pitch at Firhill, allied to some bloody-minded defence, helps keep the line intact. They generally score points in threes and have usually preferred the kicking expert Duncan Weir ahead of Ruaridh Jackson the runner this season: the former has started 17 matches compared to seven for Jackson, albeit the Aberdonian was injured for a chunk of the season. (A thought: With the players at their disposal, shouldn’t Scotland be mimicking Glasgow’s limited but effective game plan rather than Edinburgh’s expansive one?)
“I’d back Glasgow to beat anyone in the league on their day,” Kellock continues, “but you’d say the same about Munster. We are a very difficult team to play against. With our defence we can almost dictate what the other team do. It’s a little like Leinster and Munster, who put the opposition under so much pressure when they have the ball that they do things that they wouldn’t normally do.”
Edinburgh boast the leading try scorer in the league with Tim Visser touching down 12 times to date, almost twice the number of his nearest rival. Glasgow playmaker Weir sits in second place in the Pro 12 points table (169) with more penalties (46) than anyone else in the league. Glasgow are third in the league table while Edinburgh lie one off the bottom and Kellock argues that this season’s excellence was kick-started when Glasgow finished in that same lowly spot one year ago.
“Look at the last time we reached the play-offs in 2010,” he argues. “We had strength in depth in the squad two years ago, with players like Dan Turner, Tim Barker and Mark McMillan who were not perhaps automatic first-choice starts for the club but they stepped up when asked and never let their standards drop when they weren’t involved. It’s easy for the guys left behind, who are not involved in the match day 22, to just drift.
“Last season we had five, six, maybe seven injuries to front-line players, which meant that younger guys like Ryan Wilson and Chris Fusaro got plenty of game time. It’s very difficult to make a consistent impact in your first year or two of professional rugby so these guys got the chance to find their feet last season.”
Alex Dunbar is the obvious example this year after the centre adopted such a low profile in his first 18 months at the club that he could have been on a witness protection scheme. Yet Dunbar has blossomed this spring, the standout figure in the last four or five matches, with a man-of-the-match performance last time out against Cardiff. He’s finally fulfilling his potential and you could say much the same about Glasgow.
The worry now is that a change of coaching staff next year might tinker with the culture and ethos of the club. Is there a danger that Gregor Townsend will want to play a more attacking style of rugby and thereby undermine Glasgow’s defensive foundations and possibly even the entire culture?
“The best person to put that question to is obviously Gregor Townsend,” answers Kellock, “but he knows enough about rugby to know our strengths and rather than detract from them he will be looking to add to them.
“We won’t move far from that gritty team that is difficult to play against. There are new coaches and new players but the culture is ingrained in enough senior players that I believe it will remain intact.
“This is not just about what the players do on the park but how they behave off it – in the gym, in front of the media – and the standards they set, so the new guys can see what is and what is not acceptable straight away.”
The first test comes on Saturday in Cork but over and above anything that the team might achieve in terms of results this season, the warrior culture that permeates Glasgow will be Sean Lineen’s legacy to the club he is about to depart.