An evening that was in some ways a landmark one in the history of Glasgow Warriors rugby came tinged with a large slice of melancholy in the chilly drizzle on Saturday night.
For those who recall watching the pro team play in front of three-figure crowds at Hughenden, this Guinness Pro14 final was an incredible spectacle to witness as a record 47,128 packed into Celtic Park and created a magnificent atmosphere.
When substitute hooker Grant Stewart sprinted over in the late minutes to spark tantalising hope of a thrilling comeback win, the noise in the famous football stadium was truly spine tingling.
It was not to be, sadly, as a streetwise Leinster side expertly closed out a game that was, as so many finals are, short on pure quality but enthralling from first whistle to last as two teams gave it their all.
Glasgow coach Dave Rennie, below, reflected afterwards that, while short of their best, his team had still come within three points of an Irish powerhouse side who have now played in four major finals and won three of them, adding a sixth Pro14 title to the fourth European crown they won last year and only surrendered in a pulsating final with Saracens a fortnight previous.
There was to be no fairytale ending to full-back Stuart Hogg’s nine-year Glasgow career ahead of his move to Exeter Chiefs as he was left seeing stars following the most controversial moment of the evening when he was taken out in the air by opposite number Rob Kearney. To the astonishment of the appalled home support, Nigel Owens saw fit to only administer a yellow for the offence, prompting many observers to wonder what more the Welsh whistler needed to see to brandish a straight red.
“He’s disappointed,” said Rennie afterwards. “He’s concussed so he doesn’t really know what’s going on. Like everyone, he’s pretty quiet.”
After the departure of Finn Russell to Racing 92 last year, Hogg’s departure leaves another big chasm at Scotstoun, but what has turned into a highly encouraging season, barring the European flops against Sarries and the upset of not quite getting over the line on Saturday, gives the Kiwi encouragement as he looks ahead to the final season of his contract.
“We’ve got a pretty experienced side, look at how many centurions we’ve got,” he said. “People talk about Finn Russell leaving and now Hoggy leaving, but those guys get to a level where we just can’t afford to keep them and we can’t afford to replace a Stuart Hogg with a Stuart Hogg. That’s why he’s going to Exeter – to get double what we pay him!
“You’ve got to develop kids. You spend a bit of money on someone who is maybe not as good but has potential. Ultimately, x-amount of years back, someone gave Hoggy a crack at it and someone gave Finn a crack. Look at where they are now. We have the same mindset around players like Adam [Hastings].
“There will be a good young full-back who may or may not get a crack next year. We may need to bring someone in to fill a hole for a season until one of those young guys comes through. But we cant compete with the big teams from a financial point of view.
“We’ve got to unearth rough diamonds, give them opportunities and bring them through a bit quicker.”
Glasgow started Saturday’s final encouragingly but the final three quarters saw Leinster take a grip and slowly constrict their hosts like a python. Matt Fagerson’s first-half try was outscored by ripostes from Garry Ringrose and Cian Healy as the now six-time champions led 15-10 at the break. A tightly fought second half saw another Johnny Sexton penalty stretch the lead beyond a converted score and Stewart’s roof-raising try late on was simply not enough.
“We were confident at half-time,” said Rennie. “We had scored a good try, then conceded a soft one from the kick-off [Ringrose pouncing on a ball that pinballed behind the line and stayed just inside the dead ball line].
“We went down the other end and got a penalty, but we should have scored and 14-5 is a different proposition. You have to give credit to Leinster because they defended really well. They got off the line and belted us and forced a few errors.”
So the dream was not quite to be but Glasgow’s management and players can’t help but be inspired by a memorable occasion as they look ahead now to the future and a 2019-20 season which will be initially affected by a large Warriors contingent being away in Japan with Scotland’s World Cup squad in September and October.
“We are in a pretty good place,” said Rennie. “Some people would see it as a disadvantage, but the advantage of having a number of international guys who can’t play week in, week out is that we play a lot of other guys who have grown heaps.
“We’ve got some good young men coming through and a lot of competition for places. We’ve created depth and we’ve seen that in this competition. We scored the most points during the international windows, which means we have other guys doing a really good job for us.
“We have done a fair bit of contracting already, which we will announce in the coming weeks.”