Another Tough Pool

16th October 2018

Since the Glasgow Warriors returned to Scotstoun as their home ground in 2012, I have been fairly selective in the matches I have attended. Prior to last weekend, the total stood at six games (to add to the five matches I saw there during the Warriors’ temporary residence in 1997). There had been a 50 per cent success rate: victories against the Llanelli Scarlets (in what was then the Guinness PRO12 competition), Bath Rugby and Racing 92 of Paris (at the Kilmarnock FC stadium because the Scotstoun pitch was unfit) and losses against Stade Toulousain and, last season, Leinster and the Scarlets (the latter in the semi final of the Guinness PRO14).

On Sunday, on a sunny autumnal afternoon, Glasgow played their first match – against Saracens FC – in the pool stages of this year’s Heineken Champions Cup. The other teams in the pool are the Cardiff Blues and Lyon and so it is a formidable challenge to win the group and guarantee a place in the quarter-finals. It was the same story last year, when Glasgow were pitched in with Leinster – the competition’s eventual winners – Exeter Chiefs and Montpellier and won only one game out of six. (“A Tough Pool”, 23rd October 2017).

The last time I saw Saracens play was over 10 years ago, in January 2008, when, in another European pool match, they defeated Glasgow 23-16 at Firhill. In An Ordinary Spectator, I noted that, on that occasion, there had been a classic “echo” in my sports spectating: the visitors’ line-up had included Andy Farrell, whom I had seen 15 years earlier as an 18 year-old playing for the Great Britain rugby league team against New Zealand at Headingley.

Sunday’s match also provided a sense of the times passing and the generations moving on. Somewhat quirkily, the fathers of both fly-halves – Adam Hastings and Owen Farrell – had captained British rugby sides on tours of New Zealand: Gavin Hastings led the British Lions on the 1993 tour, whilst Farrell pere was captain of the GB rugby league tourists in 1996.

In the decade since the Firhill meeting, Saracens have been one of the powerhouses of European rugby, winning what is now the Champions Cup twice and being runners-up once; they have also won the English Premiership four times. In 2017, the club provided half a dozen members of the British Lions tour party to New Zealand.

All six of the most recent Lions – including the younger Farrell – took the field on Sunday and, with hindsight, it was perhaps the experience of closing out tight matches that saw Saracens retain the 13-3 lead they had built up at half-time through a scoreless second half. The home side was in the fight throughout, however, roared on by its vociferous support. Perhaps the crucial period was in the frenetic five minutes or so leading up to half-time, when Glasgow were encamped on the visitors’ try-line – aided by four penalty awards given in quick succession by the French referee, Matthieu Reynal – but unable to fashion the critical try. (Another official might have been less tolerant of the frequency of Saracens’ infringements within 10 metres of their line and reached for a yellow card).

As the score suggests, it was a match in which the defences – both of which were well-organised and (to put it mildly) uncompromisingly robust – were on top. However, the sole (Saracens) try was beautifully worked; it followed a quick line-out on the half-way line, the rapid transfer of the ball, a couple of swift changes in the point of attack and the creation of a two-man overlap on the left hand side of the field. Mike Rhodes, who played a fine game in the Saracens back row, touched down.

As ever in these closely contested, physical encounters, I looked for the moments of individual contribution. For the visitors, Alex Goode – in my view, consistently and mysteriously overlooked for the England full-back position over a long period – made a couple of thrillingly committed catches of the high ball, whilst, as expected, Maro Itoje combined his athletic presence in open play with a productive tally at the line-out. On the Glasgow side, the recruitment of the South African prop, Oli Kebble, has clearly enhanced the threat from their set scrum, which had the visitors’ front-row under consistent pressure.

More generally, I also noted that – apart from retreating in the face of an ominous drive straight from the opening kick-off – the Glasgow forwards dealt impressively with the Saracens attempts at the driving maul. This was a marked contrast with last season, when the home side’s vulnerability in this area was ruthlessly exposed by Leinster and the Scarlets, amongst others.

The weekend’s away wins by Saracens and the Cardiff Blues (the latter in Lyon) have obviously put these two sides in joint pole position after the first round of Champions Cup pool matches. Moreover, Glasgow now have two successive away fixtures prior to Lyon visiting Scotstoun in mid-December. All is not yet lost, however, and there might yet be some twists before the quarter-final line-up is known. It is another tough pool.

In the meantime, Glasgow’s success rate for my Scotstoun sojourns has fallen below 50 per cent.

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