Glasgow Warriors win would be among great Scottish sporting achievements - and bookend my career perfectly

Glasgow and Scotland hooker Fraser Brown writes exclusively for The Scotsman

A win for Glasgow Warriors in the United Rugby Championship final in South Africa on Saturday would be up there with some of the great Scottish sporting moments.

It would certainly be the best achievement in Scottish club rugby. The 2015 Glasgow team that won the Guinness Pro12 will always be held in high regard because they were the first - and so far only - club team from Scotland to win anything in the pro era. And we did it after being second bottom of the league four years previously.

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But in terms of degree of difficulty, this would be higher because of the obstacles Glasgow have to overcome to beat the Bulls in their own backyard. After a mad scramble to book flights to Johannesburg on Saturday night and Sunday, the squad flew in two groups across Monday and Tuesday. A light jog-through on Wednesday just to get the travel out of the legs followed by a normal rugby session on Thursday and a light team run Friday will be the team’s only on-pitch preparation for the biggest game of their lives.

Glasgow Warriors' Sione Tuipulotu (no 12) celebrates with head coach Franco Smith after the semi-final win over Munster, with defence coach Pete Murchie on the right.  (Photo by Ben Brady/INPHO/Shutterstock)Glasgow Warriors' Sione Tuipulotu (no 12) celebrates with head coach Franco Smith after the semi-final win over Munster, with defence coach Pete Murchie on the right.  (Photo by Ben Brady/INPHO/Shutterstock)
Glasgow Warriors' Sione Tuipulotu (no 12) celebrates with head coach Franco Smith after the semi-final win over Munster, with defence coach Pete Murchie on the right. (Photo by Ben Brady/INPHO/Shutterstock)

The temperature will be nice in Pretoria - around 20 degrees - and while I wouldn’t say the Glasgow squad are acclimatised, there is a familiarity with being at altitude because they were there six weeks ago. They are returning to the same hotel in Joburg and going through the routine they went through when they ran the Bulls close in a 34-40 defeat in the league in May.

The recent memory of what it’s like to play at altitude in the heat, and the way they came back strongly at the end of that game to claim two bonus points, will undoubtedly help.

Having said that, there will be obvious effects. They flew back from Ireland to Scotland on Saturday night. Cryo chambers were organised for some of the players on Sunday in Glasgow along with the normal recovery protocols on Monday morning.

I think what Franco Smith has done with this team has been excellent. Glasgow have been a very good side for a while and have always had the capacity to have brilliant games but even I’ve been taken aback by how well they’ve performed over the last two weeks.

In the quarter-final against Stormers, they were really composed. They really grew into the game and I don’t think people can really appreciate how physical it was. Some of the hits, both sides of the ball, were huge and they would have taken a lot out of the boys but the way Glasgow finished the game in the last 25 minutes was brilliant.

They grew in pace, intensity, power and confidence and I think that carried them into the following week and the semi-final against Munster.

The game in Limerick produced one of the best defensive performances I’ve seen. Again, they were so composed and so confident in their system. They trusted it and they trusted each other. Sione Tuipulotu spoke after the match about Glasgow’s defence coach Pete Murchie and how he had come up with a game-plan through the week which the players all bought into. That’s not always easy to do. Aside from the obvious physical conditioning needed to play and win a game of that intensity and magnitude, the mental conditioning required to concentrate for the entire game, to stay engaged and to execute places huge demands on players. It was a brilliant exhibition of professionalism.

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There are an endless supply of stats in today’s game. Everywhere you turn there is a stat trying to demonstrate some sort of trend in the sport. Sometimes one stat is all you need to demonstrate the strengths or weaknesses of a certain team. Before the weekend, Munster were the best in the league at keeping the ball and forcing the opposition to defend a high number of phases inside their 22. Pressure often led to either penalties or tries. Against Glasgow they did go into a deep phase count especially in the first half, but they couldn’t turn any of that pressure into points. Even under extreme pressure, and penalty advantage, Glasgow kept Munster out. The relentlessness of their defence, work-rate and physicality, as well as their work at the breakdown, was brilliant, part of a really composed performance.

They’ll have to produce something similar this Saturday because defence is going to be so important against the Bulls. They’ll be up against arguably the biggest, toughest, most aggressive pack in the league and they couldn’t have had better preparation than the last two games.

The Bulls are so hard to beat at Loftus Versfeld - only Munster have won there in the URC this season - and they’ve got really good fundamentals to their game. They have a strong pack and put Leinster under a huge amount of pressure at scrum-time in the semi.

Their lineout is powerful but I wouldn’t say it’s the best in the competition. Statistically, it’s up there but it’s very simple: they’ve got some good jumpers and a really good maul, so it’s a powerful weapon for them but I do think it can be got at. Glasgow got stuck into Munster’s lineout last weekend and stopped them having any sort of platform and they’ll need to do that again because set-piece is going to be so important.

The back five of the Bulls’ scrum is really impressive. Cameron Hanekom, their No 8, was outstanding against Leinster but they are all big physical ball-carriers. They come round the corner at pace. It’s a pretty simplistic game-plan but it wins them momentum and they’ve added to it this season with their ability to go wide. They’ve used kick-passes out to the wings and have a dangerous back three.

The aim for Glasgow will be to stop them gaining momentum in the first four or five phases. The Bulls are prone to giving up turnover ball and have a tendency to make mistakes when pushed into multi-phase. So if Glasgow can do to the Bulls what they did to Munster and suffocate them, slow them up and make them have to go six or seven phases then they’ll get the ball back - and we know how dangerous Glasgow can be off transition ball.

Andrea Piardi of Italy took charge of Glasgow’s semi and he’s also the referee for the final. I like Piardi. I’ve had him a couple of times and he strikes a good balance between engaging with the players while maintaining his authority on the pitch. In the Munster game, Glasgow worked with him and figured out what he was looking for in and around the breakdown and they absolutely pulverised Munster’s attacking ruck in the second half. So although Glasgow gave away a lot of penalties at the start of the game, they learned from it. He’s a good ref and it probably benefits Glasgow to work with him again because they’ll know what he’s looking for.

I think Franco will stick with the same starting XV that has performed so well in the play-offs. The only changes are likely to be among the replacements. If Stafford McDowall is fit he might be on the bench, and the same applies to Nathan McBeth if he passes his concussion protocols.

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Why would you change anything else? I thought the bench made a really important contribution against Munster. The impact Max Williamson had was excellent, and just continues his really impressive season. Henco Venter also came on and made an important contribution. Some people - me included - were maybe scratching their heads about why Glasgow signed him at the start of the season but in the last six months he’s been up there as one of our most impactful players. And it’ll be a big occasion for him at the weekend to go back to South Africa and play in a final against the Bulls.

My first game of professional rugby as a contracted Glasgow player was on June 22, 2013, for Scotland at Loftus Verseld. We won 30-29 against Italy. It was, in effect, the start of my career.

I can’t have any involvement in this weekend’s game, no matter how much I wish I could. I might not be able to play but it will still be the last game of rugby for me as a Glasgow player, the last game of rugby as a professional player.

Loftus Versfeld is the venue once again and June 22 is the date, so I’m taking Glasgow to win by one, 30-29. They couldn’t could they?



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