Duncan Smith: Glorious showpiece final a joyous break from tradition

Glasgow Warriors' Grant Stewart goes over to score a try at Celtic Park. Pic: SNS/SRU/Gary Hutchison
Glasgow Warriors' Grant Stewart goes over to score a try at Celtic Park. Pic: SNS/SRU/Gary Hutchison
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Celtic Park is a place festooned in tradition but tonight played host to a captivating break with heritage as the oval-ball game enjoyed a fine Guinness Pro14 final showpiece in the east end of Glasgow’s cathedral of football.

It was the first time that an exclusively football ground had hosted the final of a competition which, fittingly, began as a Celtic League before absorbing Italian and South Aftrican teams alongside the Scottish, Irish and Welsh pro-teams, regions and provinces.

From the statues of legends in the approach to the main stand, which saw Irish visitors queing up to take pictures of the late, great Billy McNeill’s bronze carving majestically hoisting aloft the European Cup, to the regular reminders all around and inside the stadium of the great football club’s rich folklore, the sense that Scottish rugby’s unique opportunity to grace the famous arena was building as a moment to savour was undeniable.

Celtic Park is not the biggest stadium in Scotland, let’s not forget, Murrayfield holds that honour by a good few thousand and remains the hallowed turf any Scot who picks up a rugby ball as a youngster dreams of running out on. A break with the familiar routine in sport can add a refreshing twist, though, and we certainly got that yesterday evening.

A record final crowd of 47,128 enjoyed a spectacle that was compelling to the end.

It may not have been full but the architechture of the stadium, with stands more towering and intimate than Murrayfield, created an electricity of atmosphere that can often be lacking in the more sedate surrounds of west Edinburgh.

Certainly a different more family feel from a normal Parkhead matchday, and of course, shock horror, beers and rose wines being supped, though presumably a pie and Bovril could still be had if so desired.

The shadow of the more sinister presence that Old Firm domination of Scottish sport continually casts was found in the lead up as Leinster boss Leo Cullen naively assumed that the topic was safe ground for a bit of jocular banter as he cheekily suggested the Glasgow players all supported Rangers. He dealt with that with a sincere and simple apology on the eve of the match. Matter closed and on with the game.

As Lisbon Lion Jim Craig, father of former Warriors wing James, chatted with 1990 Grand Slam hero John Jeffrey and Scotland rugby coach Gregor Townsend in the VIP seats the atmosphere built as kick-off approached.

When it was announced last summer that Celtic Park was to host the final the organisers were probably dreaming of this kind of match-up - the home team against one of the big Irish provinces who can be counted on to deliver a large travelling support. Perhaps only Glasgow v Edinburgh could have matched this perfect finale between the Warriors and defending champions.

The four-time European kings were smarting from the loss of their Heineken Champions Cup crown to Saracens in Newcastle a couple of weeks previous. There were nowhere near the swathes of blue-clad Leinster fans who descended on St James’ Park that day but they were still out in force.

The majority of the crowd were roaring for Glasgow, though, and perhaps the surroundings were getting to them as the stadium announcer had to reprimand them for loudly booing Leinster’s star man Johnny Sexton as he lined up a straight kick he subsequently missed.

An end-to-end contest was unfolding in damp, chilly conditions which were a stark contrast to the glorious sunshine of the previous day’s captains’ runs and eve-of-match press conferences.

It stuck to the pre-match script which had Leinster as favourites as their two tries to Glasgow’s one from Matt Fagerson and the boot of Sexton opened up a 15-10 lead as the Warriors also lost Scotland hooker Fraser Brown to injury.

As well as those four European titles, the Irish also had five in this competition to the historic Glasgow win under Townsend four years ago. Glasgow had home advantage but when it comes to these big games the visitors had the pedigree and, when they edged another three points ahead in the second half, and home centre Kyle Steyn in the bin, had the game in a grip which squeezed tighter and tighter approaching the final quarter.

Glasgow coach Dave Rennie had spoken on Friday of the freedom his players have in this football-crazy city where “no-one really knows who we are”. One player does hold box-office and Stuart Hogg was desperate to end his nine-year career at the club on a high before his move to Exeter Chiefs.

Rennie had revealed the Scotland full-back had been going “berserk” in training ahead of his Warriors swansong but, despite some flashes, was well contained by the Irish side.

The chant of “We are Warriors, we are Warriors” and “Glaaaasgoooow” may not have the lyrical clout of a You’ll Never Walk Alone or Fields Of Athenry but both rang out loudly as the home crowd tried to galvanise a Warriors side who were being increasingly pinned back.

A scrum penalty in their favour from the raised arm of Nigel Owens just yards from their own line sparked the kind of roar that would greet a Henrik Larsson screamer.

Bedlam broke out when Rob Kearney’s scything of an airborne Hogg yielded a yellow and not the red that seemed worthy. Hogg’s Glasgow journey ended in pain. Hooker Grant Stewart’s scorching late try raised the roof and tantalising hope but it was to be Paradise lost as Leinster held on.

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