A Tough Pool

23rd October 2017

The Glasgow Warriors have been drawn in a tough pool in this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup. In addition to the Exeter Chiefs (the English champions), their section includes Leinster (three times winners of the competition in its previous guise as the Heineken Cup) and Montpellier (currently third in the Top 14 championship in France). For their part, Glasgow had begun the season by winning their first six matches in the Guinness PRO14 championship.

Having already lost at Exeter on the previous weekend, Glasgow met Leinster at Scotstoun on Saturday.

The game was played in proper rugby conditions with dampness in the air and a tricky, swirling wind. It was clear that attention to detail – a sine qua non for a professional player I would have thought – would be important. I could imagine the frustration of the Glasgow coaches, therefore, when the scrum half, Ali Price, kicked the ball directly into touch from just outside his 22 on the first play of the game. It was from this advantageous field position that a Johnny Sexton penalty kick opened the scoring for the visitors. Later in the first half, with Glasgow leading 10-3, a massive punt downfield by Stuart Hogg took the ball all the way over the Leinster deadball line. The resultant scrum, brought back to 10 yards from the Glasgow line, led to the first of Cian Healy’s two close-range tries. On such fine margins are matches won and lost.

Healy was one of 5 British Lions who took the field for Leinster, two of the others also being prop forwards: Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath. They were instrumental in the Leinster forwards gaining the upper hand in the tight exchanges. For their part, Glasgow often looked dangerous when moving the ball swiftly to the wider channels, where Hogg could time his intrusions from full-back into the three-quarter line. I thought that the accuracy of their passing was not all it might be, however, and there was also the commonly-seen fault of the runners drifting across the pitch.

It all added up to a very interesting contest with both sides demonstrating skill as well as muscular strength. Stuart Hogg’s try required him to chase a bouncing ball over the try line and touch it down before either he or it went over the deadball line. The way that he managed to keep his feet in bounds as he stretched forward reminded me of one of the fundamental skills of a wide receiver in the National Football League, where a catch for a touchdown in the end-zone requires that both feet touch the ground in the field of play.

From 3-10 down, Leinster took a lead of 24-10 mid-way through the second half. A penalty goal by Finn Russell and a well-worked try by Tommy Seymour – along with Hogg the Glasgow Lions on view – gave the home supporters some hope before Leinster’s late surge extended the final margin to 34-18.

As expected, the game was somewhat feisty at times, but it was well handled by the referee. This was equally anticipated, as the man in charge was Jerome Garces of France, one of the world’s best. (It was Garces who dismissed Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand from the field during the Lions’ Second Test in July). It was a pleasure to see him in action.

Garces was especially efficient in stopping the game immediately when a couple of players received head knocks. In the cases of Ryan Wilson and Callum Gibbins these appeared to involve concussive injuries, even to this non-medical expert sitting in the depths of the stand. There is undoubtedly a serious problem for rugby union concerning this issue and I shall return to it in a future blog.

Experience suggests that teams’ performances in the early rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup can be deceptive. In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I reported on the hugely disappointing Bath side that lost 10-37 to Glasgow on the same ground in October 2014; Bath went on to win the pool. Conversely, the apparently all-conquering Toulouse team that won their first four matches in the same group that year somehow failed to qualify for the quarter-finals. But, having lost their first two fixtures in this year’s competition (and without the consolation of any bonus points), it must now be long odds on Glasgow reaching the next stage.

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