The Conductor of the Orchestra

19th May 2018

Time flies. I am amazed to see that it is nearly 2½ years since I went to see the Glasgow Warriors play the Scarlets at Scotstoun Stadium in the group stage of the 2015-16 European Rugby Champions Cup.

On that occasion, my subsequent blog- “What’s in a Name?” 14th December 2015 (reproduced in Still An Ordinary Spectator) – did not go into detail aboutthe Warriors’ comfortable 43-6 win. Rather, its focus was on the name of the visitors, who had dropped the original Llanelli component several seasons earlier, notwithstanding its resonance across the rugby world. I was relieved to report that the team had been popularly known as the Scarlets long before the professional era started, when the modern branding managers were mere twinkles in their mothers’ eyes.

Over the last 18 months, the Scarlets have prospered. They won last year’s Guinness PRO12 competition by thrillingly defeating Munster in the final in Dublin. This season, they reached the semi-final of the European Cup before succumbing to Leinster.

For their part, Glasgow, whilst continuing to falter in the European arena, topped their half of this year’s Guinness PRO14, which, bolstered by two South African sides, was split into two Conferences for the regular season. This gave the Warriors the twin benefits of home advantage for yesterday’s semi-final (against the Scarlets) as well as a week off, when their opponents, who had come second in their Conference, had to defeat the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs in a qualifying play-off.

Although there were sizeable pockets of Scarlets support, notably in Scotstoun’s expanded temporary West Stand, the bulk of the 10,000 crowd was biased in favour of the home side. Not surprisingly, of course – biased and colourful and noisy. The middle-aged lady next to me, with husband and two children in tow, was to contribute significantly to the volume with some sustained shrieking throughout the match.

After the Scarlets had taken the field, they were kept waiting for almost two minutes before Ryan Wilson sprinted through the long corridor of flag-waving camp followers to lead his side on to the pitch. The crowd, prompted by the mc and with the knowledge of Glasgow’s unbeaten PRO14 record at Scotstoun this season, roared with a combination of anticipation and intimidation as Finn Russell started the match with a high, hanging drop-kick.

The first minute provided a perfect microcosm of the game as a whole. Wilson made an illegal contact with the Scarlets winger, Tom Prydie, as the latter sought to take the kick-off. The penalty kick, close to the touch line, was then drilled 40 metres downfield by the visitors’ fly-half, Rhys Patchell. At the ensuing lineout, the experienced Scarlets captain, Ken Owens, nailed the throw-in expertly to the athletic Tadhg Beirne and the Scarlets retained possession of the ball. They had kept their composure and weathered the initial storm.

Later, when I watched the recording of the match on television, I noted what the respected Sky Sports analyst, Ieuan Evans, had said in commentary about the Wilson infringement: “Well actually, it’s not a bad penalty to give away. It shows an intent from Ryan Wilson… Very physical… Not prepared to allow any sort of space for the Scarlets and time to clear their decks”.

With due respect to the expert, I wasn’t so sure about this. In fact, I thought that it was a very poor penalty to give away. It meant that, rather than contesting for the ball on the opponents’ 22 line, Glasgow were immediately forced back to a defensive position deep in their own half, the penalty award – by definition – having given the Scarlets “time to clear the decks”. Three minutes later, after sustained Scarlets pressure, Patchell darted over from short range for the opening try. I suspect that, even at that point, some in the crowd had already begun to realise that the evening might not turn out as they had wished.

The Scarlets played the match at their tempo. On their line-out throw, the forwards would walk slowly to the mark, often keeping the Glasgow pack waiting in their turn, before there was a sudden flurry of activity and Owens unerringly hit his mark. In open play, it often seemed to be the opposite – unstructured, almost chaotic, and therefore risky – as the ball was kept alive and each player took responsibility for assessing the opportunities that might be available. Allied to this, however, was the consistent threat of the ball-handler being given two or three options by support runners taking different lines – an approach that Glasgow found difficult to contain. Their right-hand side defence was opened up twice more before the interval to produce tries for Gareth Davies and Rob Evans.

Patchell was the conductor of the orchestra. His initial kick for touch was only the first of a series of long pin-point punts from penalty awards, which gained huge amounts of ground without jeopardising the retention of possession for the Scarlets at the subsequent line-out. Benefiting from a swift and accurate service from Davies at scrum-half, Patchell was also dangerous in open play with his choice of running and passing options and his tactical kicking. It was no surprise when, a couple of minutes from the end of the game – by which time he had been replaced – he appeared on the large screen in the far corner of the ground: a deserved man-of-the-match.

Glasgow have been vulnerable all season to opponents deploying the driving maul from close-range line-outs: both the Exeter Chiefs and Leinster had success with this tactic during the European Champions Cup. The Scarlets, having done their homework, followed suit. Aided by Glasgow having a player in the sin-bin, the visiting forwards drove Owens over the line after 10 minutes of the second half to give their side, with Patchell’s fourth conversion, a 28-3 lead.

Perhaps inevitably, some of the crowd began to look for scapegoats. A dropped pass by one of the Glasgow centres brought a heavy groan and then a wayward chip from Russell was scathingly reviewed by my neighbour – “Take him off”, she yelled. However, the chief contender was the Irish referee, John Lacey, who, with one or two decisions – including (correctly) not allowing Glasgow tries claimed by George Horne and Jonny Gray – probably did not make himself the most popular man in the G14 postal district. I thought he had a good match, keeping a firm control and letting the play flow – and, not always the case with current referees, backing his own judgment with important decisions, rather than falling back on the comfort of a TMO referral.

Overall, however, the crowd stayed with their team and they were rewarded by two legitimate Glasgow tries in the last 20 minutes, when the usual army of replacements took the field and the Scarlets went off the boil. By this stage, the result was not in doubt and the Scarlets management team was probably already thinking ahead to the significant challenges that will be posed in next Saturday’s final – another encounter with Leinster, we now know – in Dublin.

One final observation on the Scotstoun crowd. After 10 minutes, the Scarlets captain, John Barclay, was helped from the field with a leg injury to take no further part in the match. If he does not recover in time for the final, this will have been his last Scarlets appearance, as he has joined Edinburgh Rugby for next season.

Barclay’s approach to the Main Stand was marked by a sustained round of loud applause, as the spectators paid proper tribute to a former Glasgow player, whose consistent excellence during five years in Llanelli had helped to restore him to the Scotland team (with its captaincy) after several seasons (perplexing to me) in the international wilderness. This season, Barclay has led his country to victories over Australia, France and England. It was sad to see him depart this particular stage in this manner, but also uplifting to see the crowd (literally) rise to the occasion.

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