GLASGOW showed both Jekyll and Hyde sides of their character on Saturday afternoon at Scotstoun.
Glasgow - 32
Ulster - 10
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU)
For 50 minutes, Gregor Townsend’s troops were the mild, unassuming and perfectly polite Dr Jekyll who scarcely made a dent in Ulster’s defence. Glasgow needed four tries and had yet to score one, which is when Stuart Hogg stepped up to the plate and knocked one clear out of the ground.
There appeared to be no real danger when the full-back had to pluck Finn Russell’s long, looping pass out of the air on the right touchline around the halfway mark, but Hogg obviously thought otherwise.
He chipped the first defender, the ball sat up kindly and he showed everyone a clean pair of heels before diving over in the corner.
Aware that the clock was against Glasgow, Hogg then sprinted back to the halfway line for the restart almost as quickly, urging his team-mates to do the same and, to the relief of the Scotstoun faithful, the malevolent Mr Hyde finally made his appearance.
From 50 minutes onwards, Glasgow were unstoppable, Russell grabbing two more tries in double-quick time, bashing his way through the Ulster defence to score to the right of the posts before gliding past the white shirts without a finger laid upon him to touch down again, this time to the left of the posts.
With eight minutes remaining, Richie Vernon picked a perfect angle that, combined with Ryan Wilson’s delayed pass, sent the big centre on his way to the Ulster line from 30 yards out. Paul Marshall is no slouch but the little Ulster scrum-half made no impression on Vernon and the bonus-point try was the signal for the start of celebrations.
“My hamstring was about to go,” said the leggy centre after the game. “It felt like 50 [metres] but it was probably about ten! I got through and I looked up and obviously the 15 wasn’t coming across and I thought, ‘well, I’ve got a race on here’, so I’m just kind of glad to have made it and it was a great ball from Ryan to put me through. I got absolutely mobbed afterwards. It was a bit like a football celebration.”
Glasgow’s success this season has come despite the Warriors’ backline having to operate without the combined talents of their Scotland international duo of Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett.
Fortunately for all at Scotstoun, their replacements have proved pretty handy – Peter Horne earned a place in the Pro 12 dream team for the season and Vernon has been outstanding for someone who has only recently made the switch from back row to midfield.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised,” he replied when asked about his successful switch of position from forward to back. “I knew it was going to be a challenge at the start of the season. We’ve had a couple of injuries which has given me a chance, but it’s just great to be here.
“I wasn’t involved at the end of last season because of injury and to be on the other side of it is just great. The way the atmosphere was today and the games now are just going to get bigger and bigger. It’s great to be involved in it. I’m just happy to be in the side these last few games.
“When we came in at half-time, we realised the wind conditions and we knew we wouldn’t have that much chance to play much rugby in the first half.
Second half we didn’t start that well, like we said at half-time, we didn’t really fire a shot, and the I think Hogg’s bit of inspiration out of nothing – it was an unbelievable try – that gave us all a bit of belief.”
Vernon’s move to the midfield looked a canny one in light of the performance of Josh Strauss and Adam Ashe in the Glasgow backrow. You need real power these days to make any impression with the ball in hand but those two, ably aided by Jonny Gray, carried tirelessly for Glasgow.
But Saturday’s victory came against what was in effect Ulster’s reserve side and Glasgow’s performance in some other areas will Give Townsend a few headaches. The Warriors’ big men never got their driving game out of reverse gear, except perhaps when Ulster were short-handed in the second half, and the very first one that Glasgow attempted was smashed backwards.
The fact that his side struggled for 50 minutes against what was effectively Ulster’s second string must be a worry.
“They made 12 changes before today and obviously they will have some key players coming back like Rory Best, Jared Payne, Darren Cave,” said Townsend. “Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar hardly played today. So it is going to be a really strong Ulster team [next Friday].
“The four teams [in the playoffs] have been neck and neck all season so we know that we will have to play a similar performance that we gave against Munster last year and a similar atmosphere would be great.”
Scorers: Glasgow: Tries: Hogg, Russell (2), Vernon. Cons: Russell 3. Pens: Russell 2. Ulster: Try: Henry. Con: Humphreys. Pen: Humphreys.
Glasgow: Hogg (Murchie 74), Seymour, Vernon, Horne (Weir 74), Lamont (Pyrgos 51); Russell, Matawalu; Grant (Reid 51), Hall (MacArthur 51), De Klerk (Cusack 51), Gray, Kellock (Nakarawa 60), Strauss, Fusaro (Wilson 51), Ashe.
Ulster: Ludik, Scholes, Arnold, McCloskey (Bowe 63), Allen; Humphreys (Jackson 55), Marshall (Pienaar 74), Warwick, Herring, Lutton (Ross 60), Stevenson, Van Der Merwe (Henderson 18), Ross, Henry, Diack.
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU). Attendance: 10,000.
Glasgow v Ulster: Scotstoun, Friday 22 May (7:45pm).
Munster v Ospreys: Thomond Park, Saturday 23 May (2:30pm).
Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, Saturday 30 May (6:30pm).