THE morning after the morning after and Glasgow’s now former skipper Al Kellock admits the fairytale finish to his career has yet to fully sink in.
His last act as a professional rugby player was to lift the Guinness Pro12 trophy aloft in Belfast on Saturday evening after the Warriors trounced Munster 31-13 to become the first Scottish club to win a major title. A dream was realised and the sense of reverie lingers on.
It’s special now but there’s no reason why winning things doesn’t become the norm here.Al Kellock
“This is the reality checker,” said Kellock at Scotstoun yesterday, pointing at the hefty chunk of silverware he had brought back across the Irish Sea the previous morning after an unscheduled overnight stay due to a technical fault with the charter plane. “On the flight home I was sitting next to DTH [van der Merwe] with the trophy between us, and every so often we would look at it and say, ‘we’ve won this’.
“It’s an incredible feeling. The realisation of what we’ve done just hits you. We’ve had celebrations and end-of-season parties before, but this time we’re partying because we’ve won something.”
These Glasgow Warriors now have a special place in the pantheon of Scottish rugby and sport in general and Kellock added: “It’s all the more satisfying because we have really built up to it.
“We weren’t in a position to win a title six, seven years ago or, actually, probably even three years ago. We’ve gradually improved. It’s special now but there’s no reason why winning things doesn’t become the norm here.
“We’ve got young guys like Stuart Hogg, Mark Bennett, Finn Russell, who have only been at the club three or four years. They’ve been semi-final, semi-final, final and now winners. They know how to win, but they need old guys like me to remind them how fragile it is and quickly it can disappear.
“But it’s great to see the confidence these young lads play with. Jonny Gray is another example. He plays well in every single game, his consistency is phenomenal.”
The “old” guy turns 34 in a couple of weeks and now moves into an ambassadorial role with Scottish Rugby. He can look back with pride on a career that garnered 56 caps and saw him captain his country, but it was that decision in 2006 to move home to Glasgow from Edinburgh which proved to be the defining moment, leading to so much satisfaction and, ultimately, a tangible reward.
“Officially I’m no longer a rugby player and I’ve barely had time to reflect on it,” he said. “I was thinking this morning about that decision I made nine-and-a-half years ago to come across here, and the conversation I had with my parents.
“There was an opportunity in the pipeline but Glasgow were not a club who were exactly flying at the time. Edinburgh were doing well and I was doing well at Edinburgh. I was starting games but as a tighthead lock alongside Scott Murray, who was running the lineout. I felt if I was to progress with Scotland then I had to move into that leadership role.
“To be able to sit back now, having played my last ever game, with this trophy next to me and you think yes, that was probably the right decision.
“I grew up watching this club, this is my home city. But the rugby had to be a massive part of the decision – the opportunity to play regularly. My now wife was working in Glasgow at the time, so it was a good fit, though not everybody saw it that way. I had some frank conversations with people who wanted me to make sure I was making the right decision.
“This morning it certainly seems like it was.”
When Kellock arrived at Glasgow’s then Hughenden home, the club had just finished a sorry last place in the Celtic League. That fact makes for a pleasing narrative arc in the story of Kellock’s Warriors and their rise from easybeats to champions. But, back then, it wasn’t much fun at times.
“You have dark, dark spells,” he recalled. “Everybody goes through them. Losing games, non-selection and injury are the hardest things a professional rugby player has to deal with and I’ve had my fair share of all three. I never questioned the decision to come to Glasgow but there have been really hard times.
“I remember a game down at the Dragons about six months in, pouring rain and we lost 13-3. [Coach] Sean Lineen went ballistic at the end of the game about the lack of effort.
“I was sitting there as a new captain, 24 years old, and we had tried hard, but just weren’t good enough. Sean and I ended up having a stand-up argument out in the corridor. [Then defence coach] Gary Mercer was holding us apart. But it was great for our relationship.”
Kellock will continue to be involved at Scotstoun and hope to play his part in further growth. The venue in the west of the city has become a perfect home for Glasgow but, carry on at this rate, and the club who not not that long ago were struggling to attract four-figure crowds could perhaps outgrow Scotstoun?
“Scotstoun could grow with us,” is Kellock’s reply. “You look at the Kingspan compared to the old Ravenhill. David Humphreys took Ulster on and they outgrew that and now have an amazing facility.
“Scotstoun is a great facility but we want this place to have to grow with us and be sticking 10-15,000 people in here every home game. I don’t see any reason why we can’t do that.
“What I loved on Saturday was walking around at the end and seeing so many faces in the crowd that I knew, guys from my Allan Glen’s days and people who are in or around the club. Although we are growing and want to continue to grow, we still have that club feeling.
“I think the supporters buy into that – it’s a real rugby club this place.”
Kellock played a huge part in building that and will now focus his energies on growing and developing the game he loves throughout the land. So, to give him his full title, what exactly does a Scottish Rugby ambassador and commercial operations manager do?
“I’m learning,” he said “There are things being put in place where I know what I’ll be doing, but it will also be a case of getting in there and learning about the organisation. I’ll still be doing things here that I’ve been doing for nine years – hopefully I’ll be getting this trophy out and about. I’m genuinely excited about the next step.”