WHEN some brave soul sits down to write the history of Scottish rugby in the professional era, it won’t be a page turner, even if penned by a modern day RL Stevenson. It will be a tale of lost opportunities and squandered legacies, of mismanagement and misadventure. With the exception of the odd cup run here and there (including Friday’s final defeat) it will be a tale of losses – some brave, some less so – and then the author will get to 2006.
The scribe will focus on an inauspicious date in the middle of the year when the Glasgow coach Sean Lineen picked up the telephone and changed the face of Scottish rugby by persuading Al Kellock back home with the carrot of being Glasgow’s captain. He has led the club ever since.
Glasgow were 11th in the old Celtic League that year. Now the club is looking forward to its fourth consecutive post-season play-offs. To credit this transformation to one man would be an insult to a great many others but to deny Kellock a key role in hauling Glasgow Warriors from also-rans to Brando-like contenders would be equally myopic.
It didn’t seem the smartest move, especially when Andy Robinson took Edinburgh to second in the table a few short years after Kellock disappeared down the M8, but he has few enough regrets and it’s is easy to see why.
“If you talk about the top teams in the Pro12 you talk about the top four that are there and Leinster and we made that happen,” says Kellock, still sounding a little incredulous. “If you’d said that seven years ago not many people would have swallowed it.”
With the national team struggling, Glasgow have offered a beacon of promise for those that keep the rugby faith north of the Border. Fans need something to cheer and Glasgow have offered them plenty of reasons in recent years.
Kellock has endured numerous setbacks, not least when Robinson dropped his skipper from the squad for the key game against Argentina at the 2011 World Cup. It is a measure of the man that Kellock insists the English coach had a huge positive influence on his career even if he was less complimentary at the time.
The long lock needs some distance from rugby to pick his Glasgow’s highlights, so here are mine.
Two seasons ago, Glasgow put six tries past a good Munster side who were utterly discombobulated by the end of the 80 minutes. Glasgow beat Toulouse in France and, last season, they beat Munster again in a dramatic Pro12 semi-final at Scotstoun where a full house of 10,000 fans stood as one and roared their approval at the final whistle. The Warriors stuck five tries past a bewildered Bath at Scotstoun in the European Cup and still the club’s best effort may have ended in defeat in the return game.
Glasgow fielded a hooker at seven, a centre at eight and played a prop who had scarcely played in the previous two years. Without a scrum worthy of the name, Glasgow lost by just one score and still returned home desperately disappointed. The transformation from Kellock’s early days is eye popping, leopards really can change their spots.
“Going back eight or nine years ago we really struggled and then we pinned ourselves on being a team that was difficult to beat,” Kellock recalls of his early years at the club. “We said we were going to become a team that worked harder than anybody else. If we lose we are going to play for 80 minutes. We got it wrong sometimes but we became that gritty team like Connacht or Argentina as an international team, a team that is together, and then we build it up from there.
“One of the dangers when you start winning and enjoy the relative success that we have had… if you ever forget that stuff, the foundations, then you are back to square one and that will be part of my job here, making sure that we are having the right conversations and putting the right things in place.”
Glasgow skipper for the last nine seasons, Kellock is retiring at the end of this campaign to become an SRU ambassador and work on the commercial side of things at Murrayfield. Unlike Leo Cullen at Leinster, who moved seamlessly from the second row to the coach’s box, Kellock has decided to step back from the field for a while, although he doesn’t rule out coaching in the future.
“So I am absolutely not ruling it [coaching] out,” he insists. “I have said many times, one of the great things about the job is the opportunity to do different things, see where the skill set and the need is, potentially the skill set and the need could be in coaching?”
But could he coach someone else to step into his own boots at Glasgow? Almost certainly, because he insists that leadership is a long learning process and what’s more he insists that his own club is breeding a plentiful supply of replacements. While admitting that the early days in the post were tricky, these days the big man has plenty of deputies to help share the burden.
“The brick by brick analogy is a very good one, I continue to learn,” says the Glasgow skipper. “So speaking to Jonny Gray, he was skipper at the weekend, I made the point that, as a leader for nine years, I still learn things. I started when I captained Glasgow schools but it’s learned. You get better at it. I look at nine years ago and some of the things that I did and if I had the knowledge I had now I would never have done them.
“It was a hell of a lot tougher job nine years ago than it is now… when you are losing more games than you are winning – and we didn’t have the culture we had then. We were at times divided not just into two groups but into three or four groups. Myself and Sean [Lineen] back then had to work incredibly hard to bring it back together.
“We do have fantastic leaders. I have been captain here for nine years but in that time we have had two of three other Scotland captains in Kelly Brown, Chris Fusaro – and Jonny Gray captained Scotland A.
“What we need is to make sure we have four of five good leaders on the park. I have spoken to Will Greenwood about this and the World Cup team that they [England] had with Martin Johnson. But it was about who Martin Johnson had around him. That’s been true here. Back when I first started, before Johnny Beattie, John Barclay and Kelly Brown arrived, before these guys matured enough to be leaders, it was quite a lonely job. That is one thing I have learned, you can never do it by yourself.
“I don’t believe we have an issue with creating leaders but maybe we need to take them the next step and become world-class leaders.”
Last Sunday Glasgow held their leavers’ dinner, an annual institution that was started by Kellock many years ago, whereby those that are leaving the club are honoured. Fusaro gave a speech about the departing skipper which was appropriate since “Fuzzy” is one of three candidates that Kellock suggests could replace him, the others being Josh Strauss and Gray.
“That dinner was a big focus of mine because of what it has become and who we are,” says Kellock. “It was an emotionally charged event. Saying goodbye. Talking about what the club means to you. It’s the one chance that players get although I probably get more than most. That is a massive part of rugby and if you ignore that there is a hole there. Now that I have done that dinner it [retirement] is more real now.”
He hasn’t gone yet. Glasgow have two regular season matches left, away to the Ospreys and at home to Ulster. Ideally they will win both and, in a perfect world, Glasgow will host Ulster at Scotstoun in the semi-final rather than have to face them at their Kingspan home in the final. There is everything to play for.
“It’s incredibly close but it’s in our hands,” says Kellock.
And so it is because, pinch yourselves, Glasgow Warriors top the Guinness Pro 12. The story is not over, the journey continues and you suspect there is one last chapter to be written on “Big Al’s” career as Glasgow’s leading Warrior.