Memories of the 76-14 defeat by Leinster in the 2022 United Rugby Championship quarter-finals were still fresh when Smith arrived at Scotstoun last August to replace Danny Wilson who left in the aftermath of the Dublin drubbing. The South African set about rebuilding confidence with a tough love philosophy which involved 7am fat-burning sessions for those players who needed to shed a few ounces before breakfast. “It is a pity Scotstoun only opens at 7am,” Smith said mischievously at the time.
Early starts and long days became a feature for the players but it was no overnight success story at Glasgow. Smith, working with Wilson’s backroom team and arriving after all the squad recruitment had been done, was hamstrung by the cancellation of both the club’s pre-season friendlies. A scheduled game against Worcester Warriors bit the dust when the English club’s players went unpaid and then a match with Ulster was also called off following the Queen’s death. It meant Glasgow went into their opening URC fixture with Benetton in Treviso undercooked, a hastily arranged run-out against Ayrshire Bulls being their only game preparation. It showed in the 33-11 defeat in Italy and the Warriors would go on to lose four of their first seven league games of the season, all away from home. Given they had ended the previous campaign with a run of five straight defeats on the road, their away form was becoming a millstone.
The turning point for Smith’s Warriors came in early December when they thrashed Zebre in Parma, finally proving they could win outside of Glasgow, and followed it up with a narrow win over Bath at the Rec in their opening game in the European Challenge Cup. Smith made 11 changes for the Bath tie, a selection that was greeted with something bordering on incredulity. But squad rotation was to become one of Smith’s signature moves and it paid dividends. After the tricky opening seven URC matches, Glasgow would go on to win 10 of their remaining 11 regular season league games to finish fourth and seal a home tie in the play-off quarter-finals. Fighting on two fronts, they utilised their full squad to also progress to the final of the Challenge Cup. Unfortunately, this was as far as they would go. Munster beat them in the URC last eight, becoming the only away team to win at Scotstoun all season, and then Toulon dished out a comprehensive 43-19 pummelling in the Challenge Cup final at the Aviva Stadium.
Glasgow’s task in Dublin was made more difficult by the unavailability of Tom Jordan who was suspended following his red card for a high tackle against Munster. In a season of selection shuffles, Jordan had been more or less a constant for the Warriors at stand-off. The New Zealander was a revelation in what was his first campaign in the full pro ranks, and was particularly impressive in the home win over defending URC champions the Stormers and in the match against Edinburgh at Murrayfield which Glasgow won 32-25 to reclaim the 1872 Cup. With Ross Thomson barely featuring due to a horrendous run of injuries, Smith found his options at 10 limited but his decision to go with Jordan rather than international fly-halves Duncan Weir and Domingo Miotti was another trademark move from the coach. Reputations counted for little, as others found to their cost. Ali Price, in with the bricks as Scotland’s first-choice scrum-half, found himself behind George Horne in the pecking order at Glasgow. George Turner, the Scotland hooker, was involved in three-way fight with Fraser Brown and Johnny Matthews for the Warriors No 2 jersey, and Sam Johnson, another international regular, had to tough it out with Sione Tuipulotu, Huw Jones and Stafford McDowall for the centre berths.
The competition raised standards but Smith didn’t always get it right. His decision to leave Richie Gray and Rory Darge out of his starting XV for the Challenge Cup final was a surprise, and Gray in particular was a big miss as Glasgow conceded two tries from their own lineout in the first half in Dublin. The defeat meant they were unable to land a major honour but the Warriors will return to Europe’s top table next season after securing qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup by winning the Scottish-Italian Shield, the mini-league within the URC.
Further recognition came in the form of the outstanding Tuipulotu being included in the URC’s Elite XV, the team of the season as voted for by the media. Even more impressively, Smith was named coach of the season following a poll of his peers, beating Leinster’s Leo Cullen and Munster’s Graham Rowntree to the prize. Glasgow finished the URC season 13 points and four places better off than the previous campaign and will approach 2023-24 full of confidence. The Rugby World Cup will deprive them of a number of frontline players when things get underway in October and you suspect recruitment will be key in the coming weeks, particularly as Glasgow have said farewell to a handful of experienced players. Ryan Wilson is leaving the club after 13 years of outstanding service, and fellow Scotland internationals Johnson and Simon Berghan are also departing. Lewis Bean, the experienced second row, Cole Forbes, the versatile back, and Cameron Neild, the former Worcester flanker, are the other leavers.
The South African back-rower Henco Venter has been signed from the Sharks but Smith will need a few more in the door if Glasgow are to continue to improve and progress. Tying the coach down on a new contract as he enters the final year of his current deal should also be a priority for those in high office at Murrayfield. It’s the least Smith deserves.