A fatal first 24 minutes in the Aviva Stadium meant their first European final had slipped away from them before they’d had a chance to lay a glove on Toulon. Franco Smith stressed afterwards that this was the beginning for this Warriors team, not the end, pointing out that it had taken their French opponents five Challenge Cup finals before they were finally able to claim the trophy. Toulon’s first crack at the final was in 2010 and Glasgow supporters will be hoping it doesn’t take their own team 13 years to lay their hands on silverware. They can take more comfort from the last - and only - Warriors team to win a major trophy. The class of 2015 will forever hold a special place in the club’s history for their victory in the Pro12 final over Munster in Belfast but it was no overnight success and they had to endure their share of heartache along the way, losing semi-finals in 2010, 2012 and 2013, and the final in 2014.
For the majority of Smith’s squad this was their first experience of playing in a final and the coach hopes and believes they will learn from the experience. “It’s one thing to play to get into a final, it’s another skill to win a final,” he said. “Execution in one-off games is very important. In Europe, it’s much more clinical and the standard of the play is elevated in the EPCR competitions. It’s a short tournament and you don’t get another chance [in the knockout rounds]. We have to be clinical but that has been a learning for the team throughout the season. This is season one for this group. This is not the end for us, this is just the start. It’s a stepping stone. Obviously we wanted to win it - that would have been the perfect stepping stone - but there are still improvements to be made in the main components of our game.”
When Smith arrived at Scotstoun in August he outlined his credo “to play a winning brand of rugby and to have a style that is good to watch and that the fans can associate with”. Few can doubt he has delivered on this and a fourth-place finish in the United Rugby Championship and a European final are achievements that surely outstripped most supporters’ expectations for his first season in charge. But recent matches have demonstrated that the top teams have worked out how to play Glasgow, and in particular how to stymie their driving maul. Munster came to Scotstoun and inflicted upon them their first home defeat in 16 months in the URC quarter-finals. Against Toulon, Glasgow were never at the races, conceding three early tries, two of which came from their own profligacy. Toulon scored another three in the second half and although Glasgow got three of their own, the game was gone and the French side eventually won 43-19.
The Warriors coaching team had spoken beforehand about playing the game, not the occasion but the scale of the match clearly got to some of their players who were caught cold in the opening quarter as Toulon plundered their first three tries, two from lineout overthrows by Glasgow. Smith bristled at the suggestion he should have started Richie Gray but the big lock has been a totem in the lineout for club and country this season and Glasgow could have done with his big-game experience in that torrid early spell. As it was, Gray was limited to a 15-minute cameo, introduced when Glasgow were 36-7 down. Rory Darge was another puzzling omission and you suspect Toulon were happy enough when they discovered that the abrasive flanker was starting the game on the bench alongside Gray. Darge’s abilities at the breakdown are well documented but there was no place for him in the starting back row.
Nigel Carolan, the attack coach, had warned at the start of the week that if Glasgow went off script then Toulon would make them pay and so it proved. Too many of their big players underperformed. Jack Dempsey, Huw Jones and Sione Tuipulotu have all been immense for the Warriors this season but they struggled to make an impression at the Aviva. Smith was at a loss to explain the poor start. “It was surprising because mentally I think we were in a good place,” he said. The coach added that he would use the defeats by Munster and Toulon as fuel for pre-season as he looks to take the next step. The strides he has made this season are impressive, with the Warriors finishing four places higher in the URC than the previous year. Glasgow are a far more durable and fitter side than they were 12 months ago, and Smith has built depth in the squad with his policy of rotation. It doesn’t always work and we will never know what difference Gray and Darge would have made if they had started but they were startling calls by the Smith who has got most of the big ones right this season. He will now look to bolster his squad for the next campaign which won’t begin until October 22 because of the Rugby World Cup. For the large Scotland contingent in the Glasgow squad, it will be a case of a couple of weeks off and then into camp to prepare for the tournament in France in the autumn.