After the misery of Murrayfield and defeat in the under-20 international on Friday night, Scottish rugby fans could afford a minor celebration after a weakened Glasgow Warriors side registered a narrow Pro12 win over Connacht in their first home match since November.
On a playing surface only marginally better than Murrayfield despite the use of pre-match covers, and in conditions of heavy rain showers and a stiff breeze, both sides were constrained in the kind of game they could play. “Ultimately it was always going to come down to goal kicks,” said Connacht’s coach, Pat Lam.
In the event, Connacht’s kicker Craig Ronaldson succeeded with two from five while for Glasgow Ruaridh Jackson kicked one penalty from three attempts and moreover was wide with a drop goal attempt. Glasgow’s other chance of points was a monumental effort by Mark Bennett from five metres inside the Warriors’ half that rebounded off the cross bar.
If that effort enhanced Bennett’s reputation as a long range goal kicker, the young centre also gained plaudits for his midfield attacking play, his defence and his mental sharpness that contributed to Glasgow’s and the game’s only try. It was made by Henry Pyrgos with a dummy pass from the base of the scrum and then a clean break into open space. But it was the scrum-half’s angled kick over the remaining defence that allowed the alert Bennett to pounce for what proved to be the decisive score.
Pyrgos was voted man of the match, but whether that helps him regain a foothold in the Scotland squad remains to be seen. Certainly the Glasgow coach, Gregor Townsend, was pleased with his scrum-half’s display yesterday.
“I thought Henry played very well. He varied his game in the first half playing into the wind. He was smart in knowing when to go himself, when to use his forwards and in getting the ball away under pressure,” he said.
“But there were a lot of guys put their hands up for Glasgow. Two debutant wingers [Lee Jones and Rory Hughes] did well and Fraser Brown and James Eddie did well off the bench. I thought too that Leone [Nakarawa] carried ball well,” suggested Townsend.
The Glasgow coach added: “We were perhaps disappointed to be 6-5 down at half-time after out effort in the first half. But the important thing was getting the win. We were missing perhaps 20 players so it shows the depth of the squad.”
Connacht’s early pressure gave them a chance of penalty points, only for centre Craig Ronaldson to hook a relatively easy shot at goal. But on his second attempt, Ronaldson, normally a stand-off, made no mistake after Jackson had been penalised for not releasing following a good tackle on the stand-off by Connacht’s lock Mick Kearney in the Glasgow 22 metre area.
Playing into the stiff westerly breeze, Glasgow gradually worked their way back into the Connacht half with stabbing thrusts by the big ball carriers and glimpses of penetrative running from Richie Vernon and Rory Hughes. Then, from a scrum, Pyrgos produced the break of the match to set up the try for Bennett, Jackson missing with the conversion attempt.
Connacht should have taken the lead but two unsuccessful attempts at goal by Ronaldson resulted in a zero points dividend for the visitors’ pressure. Then, from a further penalty award, Connacht opted for a scrum but their attempts to bulldoze over the Glasgow line were thwarted by a rock solid Warriors defence and an eventual turnover.
Just before half-time, Glasgow were penalised at a scrum and this time from in front of the posts Ronaldson was on target with his kick to give Connacht a 6-5 interval advantage.
Turning round with the wind advantage, Warriors quickly regained the lead with a penalty goal by Jackson after a trenchant break by lock Nakawara.
Jackson was then wide with a drop-goal attempt, but in the aftermath Glasgow showed their handling skills, with Bennett providing Lee Jones with a chance to attack the Connacht defence.
The visitors survived and were also able to repel a series of surges close to the try line by the Warriors forwards. The territorial stranglehold applied by Glasgow finally allowed Jackson to have another shot at goal, only for his long range attempt to fall short. The Scotland cap was again off target minutes later, providing further relief for Connacht.
But any hopes of staging a late fightback were doomed after the visitors gave away a penalty from a promising move. From five metres inside the Glasgow half, Bennett aimed for goal only to see his excellent attempt rebound off the cross bar to end a winning performance from the Warriors.
Teams, replacements, scorers
Glasgow Warriors: Niko Matawalu, Lee Jones, Richie Vernon, Mark Bennett, Rory Hughes; Ruaridh Jackson, Henry Pyrgos; Gordon Reid, Pat MacArthur, Ed Kalman, Leone Nakarawa, Tom Ryder, Rob Harley, Tyrone Holmes, Josh Strauss (capt).
Replacements: Dougie Hall, Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Jon Welsh, James Eddie, Fraser Brown, Murray McConnell, Finn Russell, Scott Wight.
Try: M Bennett
Pens: R Jackson
Connacht: Robbie Henshaw; Fionn Carr, Eoin Griffin, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Jason Harris-Wright, Rodney Ah You; Mick Kearney, Andrew Browne; John Muldoon (capt), Jake Heenan, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Ronan Loughney, JP Cooney, Michael Swift, Aly Muldowney, Paul O’Donohoe, Dan Parks, Darragh Leader.
Pens: C Ronaldson (2)