Al Kellock is happy to go out on a high

THERE was a fin de siecle feel to Al Kellock’s last post-match press conference in the upper levels of Belfast’s compact but perfectly-constructed Kingspan Stadium.
Al Kellock celebrates Glasgow's win at full time. Picture: SNSAl Kellock celebrates Glasgow's win at full time. Picture: SNS
Al Kellock celebrates Glasgow's win at full time. Picture: SNS

The noise of Glasgow fans celebrating outside offered a surreal background soundscape as the Scottish scribblers took it in turns to shake the big man by the hand and offer their congratulations for winning the Guinness Pro12, the first notable trophy of the professional era.

It has been a long time coming, as Kellock conceded. Not only did he spend many long, frustrating years coming to places like Belfast and finishing second best. Most of the time it wasn’t even close.

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Yesterday’s final wasn’t that close, only, this time, it was Glasgow Warriors who emerged victorious. It was just reward for the veteran in his last appearance for the club after nine seasons of hard graft, bossing and bullying the Warriors on the endless, and occasionally thankless, treadmill of self-improvement.

“I realised that if we carried on doing what we were doing then we wouldn’t go anywhere,” he said at one point before offering the three key reasons behind Glasgow’s stunning success in Saturday’s final.

“We have never forgotten where we came from. We remember back to when we would lose far more games than we won, so we made ourselves a difficult team to play against. If we forget that, if we get our foundations wrong, we will lose games.

“We have got an incredibly good off-field team. We’ve built that over the years. It is not just a coaching staff but the strength and conditioning staff and the commercial guys.

“The key to any organisation is having people who can bring the best people and keep the best people at the club.

“The last thing would be the strength and the depth and the quality of the squad. That’s partly to do with budget and the increased backing we’ve had from the SRU, which has been phenomenal and allowed us to bring in players like Sean Maitland and Josh Strauss and Niko Matawalu.”

If Saturday’s breakthrough victory does nothing else it will have been worth all the blood, sweat and tears if it rids the Scots of their perpetual inferiority complex.

Watching players like Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, the products of the Scottish system and aged just 22, play with such an assured swagger suggests that there might be a few more gems out there if we look hard enough.

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Meanwhile, Kellock was typically generous in his praise of one of Glasgow’s many foreign legionnaires. Leone Nakarawa took the man of the match award after taking the veteran’s starting spot in Glasgow’s run-on XV for the final. It was the correct decision, Kellock admitted, if a tad ruefully.

While Nakarawa’s eye-popping ability to offload the ball while seemingly surrounded by red shirts was the key to Glasgow’s opening two tries, his coach revealed that the Fijian had been operating beyond his brief.

“I told him I would be happy if he didn’t offload,” said Townsend. “For the last 20 minutes of the game last week he played really well and had four carries in the 15 phases when we scored the try [against Ulster]. He ignored his coach’s advice!

“If Leone offloads he puts it on a plate and that is a skill that is hard to do. He was under pressure but his pass said to Rob Harley, ‘come and catch me’ and his offload off his other hand created the try.

“Great to see him delivering. I only have one [way of offloading], he has 16,” said Townsend, presumably in reference to the famous “Toony flip” that earned a rare win in Paris 20 years ago.

Now that he is retiring and doesn’t need to worry about buttering up the boss to curry selection favours, Kellock had no hesitation in crediting Townsend’s influence as a key feature behind the club’s recent rise.

“He has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Kellock. “I’ve been here for a few years, I’ve seen where we came from and what we’ve done.

“Gregor brought that top 5 per cent, not only in the gameplan, but he makes people better players. He understands the game better than any coach I’ve played with. It’s not just the nine, the ten, the backs – the players you would expect him to understand. He has made every single one of us a better player.”

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As for Townsend, he has one more year on his current contract with Glasgow and his stock is at an all-time high. The predators may be circling with chequebook in hand but the Glasgow coach is already looking to the future and especially next season’s European Champions Cup, the one arena in which success has eluded him.

“It has been a great season for the Pro12,” he said. “It adds a bit of variety a Scottish team has won.

“They got a chance to play today and delivered. Last year we found out how to lose a game. There was a calmness last year about the Leinster players, who had been in many finals.

“To just get to one final and get a second opportunity is great for this group. We have to go into the European Cup believing we can deliver on the big stage.”