THE next game is always the most important one in sport but Glasgow Warriors’ next match is without doubt the biggest in the club’s 19-year professional history.
It’s their first ever final and the ideal opportunity to bag some silverware for a pro team while striking a blow for Scottish rugby in general.
On Saturday night, Glasgow will play their Irish nemesis, Leinster, in the RaboDirect Pro12 final at the Royal Dublin Society, the scene of so much heartbreak in recent years. In the last two seasons Glasgow have lost two semi-finals to Leinster in the RDS Showground by the average score of 18-15.
Glasgow lost to the same opposition at the same ground by the exact same three-point margin back in March of this year but coach Gregor Townsend insists that that match was a turning point of sorts. The club endured a mid-season wobble but the Warriors found their feet again in Dublin, scoring three tries at the RDS and they might have sneaked a win but for some uncharacteristically charitable defending.
Astonishingly, Glasgow have won every match since, dragging themselves to an all-time high of fifth place in the Eurorugby rankings and pushing their winning run to nine on the bounce. Glasgow have momentum and belief coursing through their veins, although Leinster have the benefits of age, experience and home advantage, even if the latter is a moot point.
Ahead of the Leinster v Ulster semi-final, Townsend naturally expressed a desire for an Ulster win and the final in Glasgow that would have resulted while, at the same time, admitting that a little bit of him wanted to return to Dublin because his side had unfinished business there.
They were bold words, especially since Glasgow boast exactly one Dublin win against Leinster in 19 attempts, but Townsend has made several bold calls throughout this campaign and so far he has been justified. He preferred Peter Murchie to Stuart Hogg for the Munster game, the coach threw a 13-man lineout into the semi-final mix and he promoted Finn Russell to the number ten shirt ahead of two infinitely more experienced Test players.
The stand-off is not the only player to emerge from relative obscurity this season. Gordon Reid recently won the “most improved” player award at Glasgow Warriors as the former Ayr prop enjoyed a breakthrough season. Even if he hasn’t quite displaced Ryan Grant from the Warriors run-on XV, the big man has given Townsend plenty to think about with a series of battling displays all season, including one at Thomond Park when Glasgow shocked the hosts to win back in April. In the first scrum of the match Munster’s eight dipped for a secondary shove and... nothing. Glasgow didn’t budge.
Small statements like that speak volumes in the dark recesses of the front row and Reid’s set-piece work has improved beyond all recognition to the point where a casual observer might not have noticed that British Lion Grant left the semi-final field, injured after 25 minutes.
If Russell has emerged from nowhere, Reid has ground a path into contention the hard way, spending several seasons in the Premier One trenches before finally earning a professional contract at the age of 24. While playing amateur rugby he turned his hand to just about everything in an effort to make ends meet and Glasgow’s good fortune turns out to a bitter blow for Fiona Bruce and the Antiques Roadshow.
“I was a French polisher, antique restoration,” says Reid to everyone’s surprise. “It’s not an obvious job for a guy like me because it’s all about fine detail. I did a lot of odd jobs. I worked in bars, things like that. Because rugby wasn’t really coming, I thought I would just start up myself, doing French polishing. It was going really well, but then Sean Lineen asked me if I wanted to come to Glasgow. Obviously you have to weigh things up, should I continue my business or go to rugby? It wasn’t really a hard decision, but you still have to think about it.
“I’ve worked in bars, I’ve worked in B&Q, I’ve worked in shops. You name it, I’ve done it. I’ve done labouring, I’ve done roofing. I would never do roofing again, because I broke just about every tile I stood on. I tried everything, but everything I did was trying to push me towards rugby. You need money to pay your rent and get food, to eat correctly and to pay your petrol to get to games. That’s what I did.
“You’d work from eight to five or six, maybe do overtime, sometimes go home at nine o’clock at night and then have to go to rugby after it. You’re absolutely knackered but you still do it because you love it. It does put things into perspective thinking about where you were before and where you are now.
“You never forget where you come from. I’ll never forget all the people who have helped me in all the places where I’ve worked. It does kind of give you a kick up the arse sometimes. When I’m wondering why I’m raging about training, being out in the pissing rain, it’s good to think, well, it could be worse. You could be getting minimum wage to work behind a bar.”
The point is that Glasgow Warriors are in the same boat as their big loosehead prop because both have taken a few kicks in the teeth before starting over, all the more determined for the experience. Just three years ago Reid was playing club rugby with Ayr while the Warriors finished one place off the bottom of the league. Glasgow have exited this competition at the semi-final stage in three of the last four years before getting their shot at the big time. Reid has grabbed his opportunity with both mitts and Glasgow must now do the same.
“All the boys were buzzing after the Munster game, and are still buzzing,” says Reid. “It is just a really good atmosphere to be in. Just speaking to the boys on the phone, there is just a big buzz about the club right now. Going forward to the next game, it’s going to be fantastic to be there.
“We are definitely confident. Everyone is going to say we are the underdogs, but I love being an underdog. I love it when people try and write you off. It takes all the pressure off you and you just have to do your job, go out there and play your game.”
It is, perhaps, the only false note to emerge from the big man. Just as Clive Woodward needed his England side to adjust their mind-set before they could be World Cup winners, likewise Glasgow have been undergoing a transformation on the pitch from underdogs to contenders and, ultimately if Saturday goes well, champions. They are physically ready but have Glasgow made the mental adjustments because, “the moral is to the physical as three to one”, as Napoleon might once have muttered.
Leinster are playing their fifth consecutive final so Glasgow may not be the bookies’ favourites but with nine straight wins nor should they be reaching for the “underdog” tag that Scots cuddle like a comfort blanket. I expect Glasgow to win a close encounter and so do plenty of other perfectly sane pundits. Leinster desperately want to win, Glasgow need to win and that, in what is sure to be a tight match, may mark the difference.
Pressure and expectation are the fixture and fittings of professional sport, especially when you are part of a winning squad. Glasgow should not run away from that fact, they should not even try to get used to it, Townsend’s men need to embrace the expectation if they are to fulfil their potential on Saturday evening and lay down foundations for the future.