26th May 2019
The PRO14 rugby competition is contested by sides from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, plus two from South Africa. During the season, the teams are allocated to one of two Conferences, although there are also a sizeable number of inter-Conference matches. A play-off system involving the top three sides from each Conference generates the tournament’s finalists.
The final was played yesterday evening between the Glasgow Warriors and Leinster: quite appropriately, I thought, because these two teams had been the clear winners of their respective Conferences.
Glasgow had two possible advantages going into the match. First, the game was being played at CelticPark and, therefore, was effectively a home fixture. Second, a fortnight ago, at the time when Glasgow had had a week off, Leinster had played in the fiercely-contested European Champions cup final against Saracens in Newcastle. I wondered how much of an emotional or physical cost might have resulted from the 10-20 defeat. (Glasgow had previously lost 27-56 to Saracens in that competition’s quarter final).
I was pleased that the Glasgow team included Robert Harley at blind-side wing forward: a product of Douglas Academy in Milngavie, whom (as I reported in An Ordinary Spectator), I had first seen play as a 17 year-old for the West of Scotland FC at Burnbrae. That was 11 years ago; Harley is the first player to have made more than 200 appearances for the Glasgow Warriors.
I could not help but consider the parallels and differences with the Edinburgh Rugby-Munster quarter-final tie in the Heineken Cup (“The Grizzled European Campaigners”, 31st March 2019). On that occasion, I estimated that the travelling support had made up roughly half of the attendance at Murrayfield. Yesterday, by contrast, there was no doubt which side the majority of the 47,000-plus crowd was supporting and when, after 14 minutes – accompanied by the huge roars of “We are Warriors! We are Warriors” – the Glasgow forwards drove Matt Fagerson over the Leinster try-line to take a 7-0 lead, I did wonder if it was to be their night. Unfortunately, straight from the kick-off, the Glasgow full-back Stuart Hogg had an attempted clearance charged down and the ball, spinning wickedly in the in-goal area to stay in play, was pounced upon by the impressive Garry Ringrose for the opening Leinster try.
The parallel with the Edinburgh-Munster encounter is that my previous (complimentary) description of the Munster side can undoubtedly also be applied (if not more so) to Leinster, whose list of honours includes winning (in their respective various guises) the European Champions Cup on four occasions and the Celtic League/PRO12/PRO14 title six times, including the “double” last year. They know how to win tight games and they won this one by 18 points to 15.
The visitors took a 15-10 lead into half-time thanks to a try by Cian Healy. The prop forward, with a low body angle and an unstoppable force, drove over the line after a series of close-range surges from his colleagues: a practiced manoeuvre which demands strength, technique and patience. It is not pretty, but it is very effective and it is a significant component of the Leinster armoury; at the beginning of last season, I had seen Healy score two such tries in a European Champions Cup group match against Glasgow at Scotstoun (“A Tough Pool”, 23rd October 2017).
After the interval, a Johnny Sexton penalty goal gave Leinster a two-score advantage. Thereafter, in a steady drizzle, most of the play took place in Glasgow’s half of the field. This included the better part of five minutes when a scrum on the home side’s try-line had to be re-set several times when one or other of the front-rows caved in. Towards the end of the game, after their full-back Rob Kearney had been sent to the sin-bin, there was a three-minute stretch in which the Leinster forwards crabbed back and forth across the Glasgow 22-line with a total of 26 individual “pick and go” routines – I counted them afterwards when watching the Clwb Rygbi recording of the match on the S4C channel – that produced a net gain of about three yards. “Game management” is the jargon phrase, I believe.
Then, four minutes from the end, in a rare attack, Glasgow made use of the extra man brought about by Kearney’s absence to move the ball quickly and send the replacement hooker Grant Stewart to score in the corner. “We are Warriors!” roared out again as the crowd sensed a dramatic finish. It was to no avail, however; Leinster were again camped in the Glasgow half when the clock ran down.
At the end of the match, there was an inevitable delay whilst the presentation stage was set up on the pitch and the dignitaries took up their positions to make the various awards. The match officials, headed by the excellent referee Nigel Owens, received their momentos, followed by the Glasgow team. Then, the Leinster players went up in turn, each of their names announced individually as they did so. The Glasgow players, with their supporting group of coaches and camp followers, stood dutifully to one side, no doubt enduring the runners-up’s usual cocktail of disconsolation and anti-climax and fervently wishing to leave the scene. On their left edge, as I looked, Robert Harley applauded each individual Leinster player as his name was called out.