Duncan Smith: Al Kellock earned perfect send-off

Al Kellock lifts the Pro12 Trophy. Picture: SNS
Al Kellock lifts the Pro12 Trophy. Picture: SNS
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It is no secret that, of the world’s major rugby-playing nations, Scotland has struggled more than most to adapt to the new professional era.

Since the game went open in 1995 it has been a long, hard road as other countries streaked ahead, leaving the SRU and the rugby community here floundering and split on how best to move forward.

There were the odd highs – the 1999 Five Nations triumph and Edinburgh’s run to the Heineken Cup semi-finals in 2012 spring to mind – but for the most part it had been two decades of pain and occasional despair.

That’s what made the sight of Al Kellock lifting the Guinness Pro12 title in Belfast back in May such an uplifting image. Finally, a Scottish team had their hands on a major trophy – and they had done it in style.

In many ways Kellock, who was featuring in his last game before retiring to take on a commercial and ambassadorial role with the union, embodied the incredible Glasgow journey.

When he arrived from Edinburgh nine years previously Glasgow had finished bottom of the then Celtic League. The journey from shambolic easy beats to buccaneering champions is a Scottish rugby success story worth celebrating.

They had, of course, been knocking on the door for some years. Sean Lineen had got them to the play-offs and successor Gregor Townsend repeated the feat in his first season as head coach before going one better and reaching the final in 2014. On all three occasions Leinster blocked their way.

The Dublin-based province were off their game last season and out of the play-off picture as the regular season reached its conclusion.

Glasgow had sealed their place in the play-offs once again but the top three, which also included Munster and Ospreys, were neck and neck and battling it out for the home semi-finals.

Townsend’s men hosted Ulster at Scotstoun in the final round and romped to a 32-10 win. However, the fourth placed province rested their big guns as they knew they had no chance of a home semi and wanted to throw everything into the following week as they strove to reach a final that was to be played at their own Kingspan Stadium.

As it turned out a return trip to Scotstoun in the semi-finals was the outcome and fears of a much stronger Ulster challenge proved correct as they led 14-9 with minutes remaining.

That was until Finn Russell’s audacious long miss-pass put DTH van der Merwe in at the right corner and the stand-off stood and delivered a magnificent matchwinning conversion from the touchline.

Munster saw off Ospreys in the other semi-final and, although they were not the force of old and there was a feeling this was Glasgow’s time, there was unease that the Warriors may come up just short yet again.

Any fears were allayed by a spellbinding first half which tore a shellshocked Munster to shreds. They couldn’t deal with Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa’s rampaging offloading game and they scored three first-half tries through Rob Harley,Van der Merwe and Henry Pyrgos, while Russell sealed the 31-13 win with a fourth.

As well as Kellock, the match was a Warriors farewell for the likes of Dougie Hall, Jon Welsh, Van der Merwe and Niko Matawalu. It further raised the stock of coach Townsend and it was a boost that he extended his contract to May 2017.

There was another agonising failure to progress in Europe but it was definitely Glasgow’s year, though Edinburgh made sure their inter-city rivals didn’t hog all the headlines as they surprisingly brought the 1872 Cup back to the capital for the first time in six years then made history of their own by becoming the first Scottish club to reach a European final.

Knockout wins over London Irish and Dragons set up a Challenge Cup final against a Gloucester side that included former Edinburgh captain Greig Laidlaw at Twickenham Stoop.

But Alan Solomons’ side went down 19-13 and then finished outside the top six of the Pro12 in eighth place for the second season running.

Emerging young talent, led by Pro12 young player of the year Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, offers hope for the future.

In the club game, Heriot’s celebrated their 125th anniversary by pipping Melrose 22-20 in the first Premiership Grand Final, while Boroughmuir overpowered Hawick 55-17 to lift the BT Scottish Cup.