Glasgow play Leinster today in the Champions Cup although there is only one side with anything other than pride at stake. After an appropriately brave start at Exeter Chiefs, the Warriors have yet to land a blow in Europe, out-muscled and out-fought, despite Callum Gibbins’ best efforts, and how Glasgow could do with some of his dog in today’s fight.
If the home side don’t win this one by several furlongs there will be a stewards’ inquiry.
Glasgow’s Kiwi coach Dave Rennie may spend more time than usual watching what the opposition does today simply because the opposition is about as good as it gets. Leinster are back to their awesome best, in the sort of irresistible form that saw them lift three European titles in the space of four years from 2009 to 2012. Leinster flourish in the hothouse of European competition while Glasgow wilt and it is worth asking why.
1 – LEINSTER CAN CALL UPON TEST MATCH LIONS.
Leinster and Glasgow both boast 30 odd international players on their roster, which gives them remarkable strength in depth. The difference is at the very top of the food chain.
The Dublin squad boasts six Test Lions, three props alone in the burly form of Cian Healy, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong, the remainder are Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and Jonny Sexton at ten.
The Warriors can call upon not one player who has represented the Lions in a Test (although Stuart Hogg was unlucky last summer) and that matters in Europe.
2 – THE FOREIGN IMPORTS.
Glasgow boast just 12 foreign players in their squad, a modest number by European standards. They have had some successful imports, from Niko Matawalu and Leone Nakarawa in recent years and going back to the likes of Argentine Bernardo Stortoni.
But the Warriors resemble the United Nations in comparison to Leinster who have just four foreigners on their books. Leinster go for quality rather than quantity – they always have – and the Dublin club has a deserved reputation of improving their imports. “Rocky” Elsom, Felipe Contepomi, Scott Fardy and, especially, Isa Nacewa all played (or are playing) the best rugby of their lives in blue.
This must be the most homogeneous squad in the entire Champions or Challenge Cups – even the Siberian side Krasny Yar boast a dozen or so foreign players.
One club insider estimated that 90 per cent of Leinster’s players hail from Dublin itself. There are shades of Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions here and it leads to a really tight knit group of players but it also leads to the really interesting question… how does a small city produce so many brilliant rugby players?
3 – IT’S THE SYSTEM… STUPID!
And the answer is the feeder system into the club, which is as good as it gets anywhere in the northern half of the globe. There are six top class rugby schools in Dublin – Clongowes Wood, Terenure, Blackrock, St Michaels, St Marys and Belvedere – every one of which acts as a miniature academy of excellence for Leinster’s own academy system.
Schools rugby in Ireland is mighty impressive, televised, almost too serious and professional for some tastes, but there is no arguing with the quality of player that emerges. Brian O’Driscoll and Joey Carbery attended Blackrock, flanker Dan Leavy and lock James Ryan both attended St Michaels.
In addition to the six nominated schools, there are a host of others in the wider region that play rugby at a slightly lower level and they too feed into the system.
Contrast that with Glasgow who, if my maths is right, have just a handful of players schooled in the city in their senior squad. Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings both attended Kelvinside Academy. James Malcolm was at Hutchesons Grammar School, Rob Harley went to Douglas Academy in Milngavie and Rory Hughes attended the football playing Kings Park Secondary but worked his way through the club system instead.
Instead Glasgow must cast their net much wider and they are well served by several clubs, especially Ayr and Stirling County, the latter providing Adam Ashe, Finn Russell and Jamie Bhatti to name just three.
It is as much a phenomenon of history and culture as much as anything else but while Leinster continue to benefit from the best feeder system in Europe, they will be likely to remain several steps ahead of Glasgow.
4 – AGE AND EXPERIENCE.
Is it just me or do the Scottish pro-teams seem to be in a more or less constant re-building phase?
In some respects Leinster = Glasgow + time, although that may involve a little wishful thinking.
The twin stand-offs are a case in point. First up, Leinster have better back up in the form of Joey Carbery. Secondly Jonny Sexton, like Russell, is ambitions and adventurous but the Irishman has seven years and oodles more experience than his Glasgow rival.
When the going gets tough, Sexton sticks to the script confident that Leinster can win a close game in any number of ways, driving mauls, back three, in the air, off the tee or a moment of genius from their classy ten.
When things are going well for Russell with the forwards on the front foot, he is unstoppable. When things go awry, the stand-off forces the game, trying for the “Hail Mary” pass/kick/move/break with almost every play and the opposition feeds off Glasgow’s lack of composure and grows an extra arm.
This afternoon Leinster’s starting XV boasts an average age of 28, Glasgow just 25. If Dave Rennie can hold on to his key players for the next few years, and coax Russell back to Glasgow, the Warriors may eventually emulate today’s illustrious rivals.