Gregor Townsend: Ulster pose toughest challenge

SCOTSTOUN was a joyous place to be last Saturday at around 4.45pm. It was a thrilling end to the game and what was an unlikely result after the first 50 minutes.

Al Kellock, who was honoured this week at the Pro12 awards, celebrates Glasgows win over Ulster with Gregor Townsend. Picture: SNS/SRU
Al Kellock, who was honoured this week at the Pro12 awards, celebrates Glasgows win over Ulster with Gregor Townsend. Picture: SNS/SRU

Ulster were playing well, controlling the windy conditions better than us and deserved to be leading 10-6 at half-time.

We probably felt that the strong wind would be of real help in the second half, but we weren’t able to get hold of the ball or keep hold of the ball until Stuart Hogg’s brilliant individual score swung the momentum back in our favour.

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It was great to hear the Scotstoun crowd in full voice and their energy drove us to our crucial bonus-point win.

At half-time, we’d heard that Munster had already scored five tries and that Ospreys were 24-0 up against Connacht. At that point we thought that we had to score four tries to finish second and secure a home semi-final. So it was a nice surprise to hear that Ospreys hadn’t added to their three tries in Galway and we’d finished top of the Guinness Pro12 for the first time in the club’s history.

More importantly, we’d given our supporters another chance to get behind the team this season and guaranteed that home semi-final.

With a Saturday to Friday turnaround, our focus quickly turned to what will be required to beat Ulster this weekend. It will be a tougher challenge than we faced last week and probably tougher than we’ve faced all season.

This is, after all, a semi-final and both teams will know that only their best performance will suffice. Last season we hosted an epic match against Munster, which was of Test-match quality and intensity in which we came out ahead by only one point. Make no mistake, we’re expecting a similar level of game tomorrow.

Ulster will undoubtedly be stronger this week after making the decision to rest some of their leading players last Saturday. Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Jarred Payne, Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe are all excellent players and are all likely to be recalled to their starting line-up when it’s announced later today. Playing against the same opponents last week gives both teams a better understanding of what they will face tomorrow, but often a game takes its own shape depending on the weather conditions or what is working on the night.

We’ve had our view of Ulster reinforced by last Saturday’s encounter, but we’ve also learned other things on how they might choose to play us and what they will look to do tactically in attack, defence and in their kicking game. The forwards get much more specific learning from the close exchanges at scrum time and in lineout drives, so the information-sharing in our squad this week has been very valuable.

We’ve also had a couple of events off the field this week with the Pro12 awards on Sunday night and our own awards dinner last night.

It was great to see the club represented in the league awards, with three players – Peter Horne, Tommy Seymour and Josh Strauss – selected in the Dream Team, and Al Kellock deservedly picking up the Chairman’s Award for his contribution to Celtic rugby.

At our awards dinner we recognised those who had stellar seasons for the club, with Adam Ashe picking up Young Player of the Season, Niko Matawalu being voted Player of the Season by our supporters and Peter Horne winning the Players’ Player of the Season.

An important award that we give as coaches is for the player we believe has done the most to improve their own game, improve their team-mates and also improve the club in a wider context. This year we announced joint winners in Mark Bennett and Peter Murchie – two excellent professionals who have the club’s best interest at heart.

We also had an opportunity to thank and acknowledge those leaving at the end of the season – Shade Munro, Al Kellock, Dougie Hall, Jon Welsh, DTH van der Merwe, Tom Ryder, Niko Matawalu, Sean Maitland, Connor Braid and Murray McConnell.

That is almost 800 caps and many special moments in a Warriors shirt and they will be rightly remembered for all their help in progressing the team over these past few seasons.

Al and Shade, in particular, have been hugely influential in making the club better year on year, both in terms of rugby and cultural improvements.

The really pleasing thing for me is how all of the above people have continued to work hard and do all they can to help the team win, providing energy and solutions even though they won’t be at the club next season. I believe this is rare in modern sport.

Obviously, our main focus this week has been on Ulster and what we need to do to win tomorrow night. As a coaching group, we were delighted by how the players trained on Monday – bringing a real intensity, pace and quality to the session.

There was a real concentration and willingness to work hard in the sessions, and the attitude of those who didn’t play on Saturday was outstanding.

Part of the joy of coaching is seeing players take their opportunities and winning as a team, but watching the whole squad train close to their potential is also very satisfying.

We are looking forward to seeing these men do battle one more time this season at Scotstoun and take on one of the best teams in Europe.