AFTER the giddy high of their swashbuckling victory over Munster to clinch the Guinness Pro12 title just three short months ago, Gregor Townsend’s team returned to earth with a bump on Saturday evening.
But it is only fair that we view this defeat by the Scarlets in the appropriate context. The Warriors were missing 15 players named last week in Vern Cotter’s Scotland World Cup squad, plus the irrepressible Leone Nakarawa, who is away with Fiji. No squad in world rugby has more players involved in this year’s showcase tournament.
By comparison, the Scarlets were missing just seven World Cuppers, and the difference in continuity levels was especially evident during the first 40 minutes as the visitors muscled their way to a 13-0 lead, which the Warriors failed to claw back, despite spending most of the second half bombarding the Scarlets’ defensive line.
The Warriors stood in a huddle on the pitch and had a long chat after referee Gary Conway had finally called time on the game, but the head coach insisted that the emphasis was on the reasons why his makeshift side should feel proud about what they had just accomplished, rather than being frustrated that a 20-match winning streak in the league at Scotstoun had finally been brought to an end.
“I was really pleased with the way we played in the second half and, if the game had lasted another couple of minutes, I’m sure we would have got the win,” said Townsend. “The response of the players to what was said at half-time was great and the impact of the players coming off the bench was encouraging.”
Behind closed doors, the Warriors squad must surely rue the decision to opt continually for scrums in an attempt to milk a penalty try during a tense finale.
They succeeded in having the Scarlets reduced to 11 men for the final minute and a half, with James Davies, Rob Evans and John Barclay all sent to the sin-bin as the Welsh outfit held on for grim life, while Rhodri Williams was also off the pitch with a head injury.
However, by the time Glenn Bryce scooted over to reduce the deficit to just six points, there was less than a minute left on the clock and the Warriors had given themselves too much to do in such a short period of time.
“It is hard to say whether it was the right decision. We felt we had an edge in the scrum and we created an opportunity to win the game through that. They had only 11 players on the field at the end and that’s when we made the mistake – we didn’t look after the ball when I felt we were all but certain to score,” insisted Townsend.
“It’s hard to say whether we should have been awarded a penalty try. I think we were still a little bit away, although there was one when it looked as though we were charging towards the line. I felt the referee dealt with the situation very well.
“We took too long to get into our stride and, in the end, it was too late to win the match. We’ve trained really well and this week the sessions have been of the highest quality.
“We were very accurate in the warm-up, but I felt we just stood off the Scarlets in the first half. Most of our mistakes were happening in defence,” he added. “When the Scarlets announced two quality open-sides in their team, we realised we were going to have to be very accurate in contact and, at times, we won penalties in that area, but at other times John Barclay and James Davies got the ball back.
“We improved in the second half but we can’t sit off any team, especially against a team of the quality of the Scarlets, and they punished us for that.”
Townsend highlighted debutant Scott Cummings for special praise. The coach clearly has high hopes for the young second-rower.
“I thought he was one of our best players tonight. As an 18-year-old he has really impressed us during pre-season and now he has shown that he can play at this level. He carried the ball hard, he tackled hard and he was calling the line-outs so he did very well,” said Townsend.
The player was clearly delighted with the way his evening had gone on a personal level, although that justified pride was inevitably tinged by disappointment that the result had not gone his team’s way.