Gregor Townsend: Years of learning led to Pro12 win

IF CARLSBERG did rugby weekends… well it was very much a Guinness weekend for us and I’m sure our supporters enjoyed some of the sponsor’s product in Belfast and in the many pubs and rugby clubs throughout Scotland after the final whistle on Saturday night.

Gregor Townsend. Picture: Donald MacLeod

It was a joy to watch our players perform so well in such an important game and as a coaching group we were immensely proud of their efforts. Even better was the reaction to this performance from our sizeable travelling support. Their constant noise and some new chants made it a great occasion at the Kingspan Stadium – a venue that will now forever have fond memories for Glasgow supporters.

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about the culture of Glasgow Warriors and how this has been the foundation for our success. The on-field development over the past three years also tells a story of how the players have improved to become a much stronger team. The following games illustrate this progress.

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In October 2012, we were drawn to play Northampton away in the Heineken Cup. The English side were leading the Aviva Premiership at the time and were one of the favourites for the European title. We played some great attacking rugby and raced into 15-0 lead after 30 minutes. However, we didn’t believe in ourselves enough and held back in our positive play. We ended up losing 24-15. At the end of that season, in our semi-final match against Leinster at the RDS, we played even better rugby but lost out 17-15. This time we did believe in ourselves much more but we weren’t smart enough yet to consolidate our good play and eke out penalties to find a way to win like our Irish opponents managed to do in the second half of that game.

In season 2013/14 the belief and the rugby intelligence within the squad grew and we produced some significant wins – notably over Munster at Thomond Park and later on that season against the same opponents in our maiden home semi-final some 12 months ago. However, we then learned another vital lesson during our first ever PRO12 final, by discovering that emotional control was just as important as belief and rugby ability. Leinster showed their experience and much more patience to run out comfortable winners in the end.

Those two seasons showed to me that failure is an integral part of success. This season we have become a much more resilient team – not losing our belief if things don’t go our way, be it through mistakes, injuries or refereeing decisions. It allowed us to win tight games such as our European Rugby Champions Cup tie in Montpellier, and, crucially, in our semi-final against Ulster ten days ago. These experiences have shaped us and our players were much better mentally prepared going into Saturday’s final.

It was then all about trusting each other, trusting the game plan and giving that extra ounce of effort to deliver a winning performance. It was great to see them go about that task right from the start of the game.

Having chosen to play into the wind we knew we should get a lot of ball kicked to us in that first half. Our work to get back for counter-attack was excellent and allowed us to play the game at a high tempo.

A vital cog in this effort is always the outside centre and Richie Vernon certainly worked his socks off running over 7 kilometers – the most of any player in the game. We created a number of try scoring opportunities – not all of them we took – but we were very pleased to be leading 21-10 at half-time.

The attacking instinct of our back three, the offloading from the unplayable Leone Nakarawa and the strong carrying from Josh Strauss was top class but you need players working very hard in support to make the most of these opportunities and credit must go to Rob Harley and Henry Pyrgos for being in the right place to score crucial tries for us.

Just before the first half ended I got the most exciting weather forecast I’ve ever heard from our assistant coach Kenny Murray, who has been fantastic since joining us from Ayr, was tasked with relaying messages to the players and coaches and couldn’t control himself throughout the game in saying the rain and wind are now picking up. We obviously knew it would make it much tougher for Munster who had to play into these conditions in the second-half.

Apart from a seven-minute spell at the beginning of the second-half when we got a little bit loose, the players’ work-rate to earn their win was magnificent. Any teams’ success is based on their defence and this was very much the case in Belfast on Saturday night. Both our starting props (Gordon Reid and Rossouw de Klerk) had identical tackle counts – 13 each and no misses. Jonny Gray set some really high standards once again with 23 tackles and no misses. The midfield and the back-row contributed very well to our defensive effort, making 94 tackles between them. These efforts made it much tougher for Munster to get back into the game.

Although the win was ultimately delivered by the 23 players who took to the field on Saturday, there have been many more people who have contributed to our success. Sean Lineen and his coaching staff built the foundations for the team’s competitiveness a number of seasons ago, and there has been increased support and investment by Scottish Rugby, which has been a great help and very much appreciated.

Stuart Yule who heads up our brilliant performance team has got so much of our players from a physical perspective and everyone in our squad knows how much he has contributed to our on field performances. This has enabled us to continue to play at a high-paced aggressive brand of rugby throughout the season.

Others vital members of our support staff include our analysis and medical team – an outstanding group of people who are selfless and hard-working. They should be very proud of their efforts.

Finally to my senior coaching assistants: Shade Munro and Matt Taylor. Shade has been a true professional and is a Glasgow legend, whose hard work over the last ten years culminated with the club’s first major trophy at the weekend. His forwards did him very proud going up against one of the best packs in Europe on Saturday.

Special mention must also go to Matt Taylor whose enthusiasm and attention to detail have helped create a really strong defensive team. Matt has now added a PRO12 winners’ medal to the Super Rugby title he picked up with the Queensland Reds, which is pretty impressive so early in his coaching career.

We do a lot of things differently at Glasgow, not always better but we aim to learn from our mistakes as quickly as possible. There will be no resting on our laurels, for a couple of reasons – one is that I firmly believe there is a lot more to come from this group, and there were a number of areas we could have done much better on Saturday.

Winning to us is about improvement - not just what appears on the scoreboard. We will be working even harder next season to be a better team. Also, we have a challenging and exciting few months ahead. With 22 players in the Scotland World Cup squad – and congratulations to them all – and probably another 3 or 4 players away with other countries, there is a lot of work to do to be ready for the 2015/16 season. It’s just as well we have only given the players a 10 day break until our pre-season training starts….

I’m really looking forward to next Wednesday and our first session of the new season and taking that next step in our development.