Warriors Glasgow got things back to front last season, the cart pulling the horse. They won their first ten league matches and, despite coach Dave Rennie repeatedly warning that the team only needed to peak in May, the Warriors then lost five of their last seven outings including that semi-final.
They were not helped by a three-week lay-off ahead of that Scarlets defeat, but Glasgow were already in poor shape going into the play-offs. In truth the Warriors were a little like England: absolutely unstoppable until 14-man Edinburgh beat them in round 11 at Murrayfield, just as Scotland exposed the fault lines in Eddie Jones’ side on the very same ground, after which they lost their unbeatable aura and their way.
There are various theories as to why Glasgow collapsed so meekly in that semi-final in front of their own fans, trailing the Scarlets by 28-3 until two late tries papered over their obvious shortcomings. The large contingent of Test players didn’t perform after the Six Nations, that long lay-off didn’t help any, and injuries took their toll, but Rennie isn’t the sort to look for excuses.
“The key is to be the best team in the comp at the business end of the season and we weren’t,” said the coach last week. “We’ve looked at everything we did around preparation. There were quite a number of weeks off and ultimately we lacked intensity when it counted.
“We’ve looked at all our preparation from a coaching perspective. It’s easy to blame the players but ultimately when you don’t front, we’ve got to look at what we did and how we prepared them.
“There’s been a bit of learning from that. Earlier in the year we were really clinical, made a lot of line breaks and converted them. That dried up late in the season too. We were still getting more line breaks than the opponents we were playing but we didn’t defend with the same sort of intensity, and we weren’t as urgent in regard to our ball support. We stuttered into the play-offs and we lost to Ulster and Edinburgh. We didn’t have a lot of intensity going into the semi-final.”
Energy and intensity are perhaps taken for granted but Glasgow were short of both commodities late in the season, and one reason is Kiwi flanker Callum Gibbins who was not the same force of nature after his mid-season injury as he had been in the early rounds. Without his snarl and bite, Glasgow’s breakaways might as well have gone to work sporting blue peacekeeper helmets.
There was also the criticism that Glasgow only played one way, and if a team could either slow the Warriors’ ball or cut off access to the wider channels then the Warriors didn’t have a plan B.
There is some truth to this, according to club skipper Ryan Wilson, who insisted that the squad has been working hard on set-piece and maul to find another way to exert pressure on the opposition.
“Scrum and lineout are a big part of it in Europe and we’ve got to be stronger there,” said the breakaway. “We’ve worked on it a hell of a lot this pre-season. Our lineout is better and our drive will be better. We were so used to just throwing the ball around, going wide and cutting teams open. When that didn’t work, we just sort of looked at each other and said, ‘where do we go now?’”
The return of lock Brian Alainu’uese from injury is the key to implementing plan B because not only is the Kiwi a huge man but he is athletic with it, and he was coming onto a good game before being forced to sit out much of last season.
The problem for Glasgow is that they have allowed their best plan B scrum-half to leave, Henry Pyrgos joining Edinburgh in the summer. Rennie still has options – Nick Frisby, Ali Price, George Horne, Kaleem Barreto – but these four are all a little similar in style, running nines who threaten around the base, ball in hand, and come the middle of winter Glasgow may miss Pyrgos’s tactical nous.
Many coaches talk about picking on form but Rennie did just that and, with a 53-strong squad of players, he has to work hard to keep everyone busy. However, the Kiwi also admitted that he should perhaps have picked his best XV and stuck with it, injuries allowing, for those final few games to build some momentum and continuity.
“We were still trying to create competition for places late in the year, and perhaps we should have gone with our team, played them in the last three or four games and committed to that. Ultimately, we do want to create competition for spots, we just need to do a better job at the finish.”
A better finish is just the most important of a long list of things on Rennie’s “to do” list.
This includes – finding a stand-off replacement for Finn Russell, deciding whether to play a second playmaker (Peter Horne) at inside centre or a strike runner (Alex Dunbar), having a plan B, getting the best out of Huw Jones who is far too good an attacking threat to ignore, and finding a few more mongrels in the pack to back up Gibbins when the flanker goes to war at the breakdown.
And if Rennie and his players need any further incentive, then a Pro14 final down the road at Celtic Park offers exactly that – and it is difficult to imagine the 60,832 seater stadium being anything near full without the home team.
Glasgow have a decent shout and, if I were a betting man, I would pick Munster over Leinster, or anyone else, as their fellow finalists…not that Rennie gives a hoot.
“To play in a final at home would be massive and it’s something we’re determined to be part of,” said the coach. “We won’t care who we’re playing in the final if we can make it there.”