Warriors leave it late to steal the show at Scotstoun as Iain Morrison watched on
Glasgow Warriors will contest their second successive Guinness Pro12 final when they take on Munster in Belfast on Saturday night. But only after effecting a heart-stopping comeback against Ulster in Friday’s semi. If you thought last season’s nail-biting last-four clash against Munster was a corker, then you should have heard the roar Scotstoun produced five minutes from time when DTH van der Merwe, the top try scorer the club has ever produced with 34 to his name, came up with perhaps the most important five points of his career.
‘There was a lot of confidence in the changing room’
Even a side as tenacious as Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow could have been forgiven for thinking this simply wasn’t going to be their night, especially after a mistake by Niko Matawalu allowed Chris Henry to put his side ahead after 20 minutes; a lead they kept until that late, late score. But the Warriors never stopped believing in themselves, at least if you listen to Henry Pyrgos.
“I think we believed the whole game,” said the classy scrum-half. “Obviously the set piece was tough. We didn’t get a lot of ball. They are a top side, we knew that coming in and they put us under pressure. But with the character in the team we managed to stay in the game when we weren’t playing well and at 8-6 down at half-time, we hadn’t really done a lot.
“There was a lot of confidence in the changing room. If we could just get a bit of ball and put them under pressure, which we hadn’t really managed to do – we spent a lot of time in our half – we could get in the game. Obviously we managed to get some ball and built a number of phases. Their defence was unbelievable, they kept us out, it was tough but a great pass from Finn [Russell], DTH [van der Merwe] was obviously in the right place and it was a great [conversion] kick. That was it really.”
The way Pyrgos tells it makes it sound as simple as knocking a football into an open goal but it was anything but as Glasgow struggled to win their own set piece ball and, when they did manage, promptly gave it away again with a series of careless turnovers and daft passes. The lineout was shaky and the set scrum, which only two seasons back was a force of nature, is now a liability.
Ryan Grant has gone backwards over the past 12 months, literally and metaphorically, and Ulster are a long way below the best in the bump and grind department.
It must be a worry to Townsend that the same issues arise time and again, especially that failure to protect the ball in contact, because his side have struggled more often than is good for morale. If performance is all, Glasgow’s has been a little ordinary of late.
Last weekend against the same opposition, Glasgow were lacklustre for the first 50 minutes until Stuart Hogg’s try sparked them into life. The week before that they were trounced by the Ospreys in Swansea and on Friday night, by Townsend’s own post-match admission, Ulster were unlucky not to have been further ahead at the break after bossing the first half.
The momentum slowly, almost imperceptibly, swung from the visitors to the hosts in that second half. Tommy Seymour did wonderfully well to snatch a high ball from Tommy Bowe’s outstretched hands which lifted his team-mates. Then Ruan Pienaar displayed his own nerves by kicking out on the full. Finally, Ulster prop Ricky Lutton made a harmless challenge on Matawalu that the Fijian milked like he was an Oscar nominee and, as Pyrgos pointed out, this Glasgow team has the weapons to worry any opposition if and when they get the ball.
“We’ve got a lot of good guys,” said the scrum-half, “guys like Niko, DTH, Sean Lamont, both Horney and Richie [Vernon], we’ve got a lot of guys in our team who can make something out of nothing. If we get a bit of ball, find a bit of space, there are always chances we can make something happen. Only being 8-6 down was amazing. 14-9 down at the end, when we knew the converted try was still there. We’ve a lot of good players, we just needed a bit of ball.
“We do a lot of work on the training pitch in that area of the pitch, the opposition 22, just trying to hold on to the ball, build phases, build pressure and it was great that we managed to get in there.”
Pat MacArthur had already lost two throws inside the Ulster 22 so it was smart thinking on the hooker’s behalf to throw short to the front man Gordon Reid, his old mucker from Ayr.
That kickstarted Glasgow’s last-gasp effort and the try arrived after 14 phases of play, all of which took place inside the Ulster 22. For the first time in the entire match Glasgow managed to keep hold of the ball for any length of time and, for the first time in the game, they earned the reward. Now the task is to repeat the trick on Saturday.
“Our goal as a squad is to win a trophy, to be the first Scottish team to win a trophy,” Pyrgos insists. “We knew it would be massive tonight and its great to get here.
“Learning from last year, it wasn’t a case of winning the semi and maybe not turning up for the final. Leinster just played very well but we know this week we will have to work extremely hard and recover well because that was a really tough game.”