GLASGOW finished top of the league table, by a whisker, but in today’s final Munster will start as favourites, by a whisker. They will do so first because of their cup-winning record, and second because their form over the last month has been marginally more convincing than Glasgow’s.
Some will say that the club’s history is irrelevant, and it is true that most of the stalwarts in Munster’s great years have now been put out to grass. Nevertheless, Paul O’Connell is still there and it seems that this may be his last match in a Munster shirt before he goes off to euro-riches in Toulon after the World Cup. So his team-mates will want to see the great man off in style.
Glasgow have sometimes seemed to be running on empty in the last few weeks. Nevertheless, they’ve come through, the only blot on their record being that strangely subdued performance in defeat at the hands of the Ospreys in Swansea. In the last game of the league season, they struggled for an hour against what was almost Ulster’s second XV before running in four tries to get the bonus point that secured them a home semi-final. There again, Ulster, back at full-strength, led until five minutes from the end. But Glasgow’s nerve and resolution held and a brilliant try followed by Finn Russell’s apparently nerveless touchline conversion saw them home.
Glasgow have recently struggled in the setpiece, especially the scrum, and they will be hard put to it to check Munster’s driving mauls. Gregor Townsend’s selection suggests that this is very much on his mind. Rob Harley returns after a couple of weeks’ rest and recuperation and no one is better at making a thorough nuisance of himself in the close-quarter exchanges. Leone Nakarawa is starting at lock, rather than Al Kellock, perhaps with the same need in mind to disrupt Munster’s possession. This is a bold selection. Nakarawa is a wonderfully creative player with his deft and audacious off-loading, but he does tend to give away the odd penalty. No doubt Kellock will come on in the closing stages, either to steady the ship or, one hopes, to have a fully-deserved share in the glory.
Niko Matawalu is also on the bench, available as an impact player to pull chestnuts from the fire if that is what is needed. Some will see his absence from the starting XV as evidence of caution, or, at least, as an intention to play a structured game for as long as possible. When he’s on the field, anything can happen, marvellous or disastrous.
Glasgow’s chances have been improved by the injuries which have kept Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony out of the Munster side. Murray was Ireland’s outstanding player this season and O’Mahoney, Munster’s captain, ran him close. That said, though Peter Horne and Richie Vernon have done very well, it is fair to observe that Glasgow have reached this final without having had their first-choice centre pairing of Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett available for the second half of the season. The truth is, of course, that the physicality of the modern game is such that it is very unusual for any club or international team to put its preferred XV on the field. One might add that Murray’s replacement, Duncan Williams, had a very good game indeed when he had to take over only a quarter of an hour into the semi-final against the Ospreys.
Munster’s coach, Anthony Foley, has kept faith with Ian Keatley, despite the stand-off having had a shocker against the Ospreys, his kicking from hand being almost as bad as his kicking off the tee. Presumably the thinking is that he can’t possibly repeat that dismal performance. Glasgow will hope that Foley’s faith is misplaced. It probably isn’t. Keatley blows hot and cold, but one has seen him kick very well indeed. All the same, Munster would have had a much easier passage to the final if he had been on target last weekend. It would be no surprise if we saw Rob Harley targeting him – quite legally of course – in an early attempt to shake what may be somewhat fragile confidence.
“Fragile”, however, is not an adjective likely to be applied to Munster. Over the years, they have shown themselves to be the mentally toughest of clubs. The personnel changes, the character stays the same. One has lost count of the number of times they have come late to snatch a victory in the dying minutes of a match, or have held on to a slender lead when under bombardment.
What makes this final so fascinating is that Glasgow have shown the same ability to play under extreme pressure, and to win even when making lots of mistakes.
Perhaps today they will cut out the errors and give the perfect performance.
If it is even up-front, I think they will win, even while being wary of the danger that Munster offer out wide, where Simon Zebo has been passed fit to play and Keith Earls is back in the form which makes him as brilliant and elusive a runner as anyone in the northern hemisphere. It is going to be a match for fiery spirits and cool heads, and a win for Glasgow would give Scottish rugby just the boost needed as we turn our attention to the World Cup.