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For Valour

19th August 2019

Last year – in “Below Average” (28th May 2018) – I noted that Yorkshire CCC’s record over the 55 years of one-day competitions could indeed charitably be described in those terms. Of the 142 tournaments – ranging from 60 overs to 20 overs per side – played to 2017, they had won just five with, of the other counties, only Derbyshire, Durham and Glamorgan having a lower haul. The completion of the 2018 season took the score to 5 out of 144.

Earlier this season, Yorkshire maintained their record by failing to progress out of the Group phase of the 50-over Royal London One-Day Cup (which was subsequently won by Somerset), thereby leaving the T20 tournament (the Vitality Blast) as the remaining vehicle for possible one-day success. However, prior to last Friday’s fixture with the Durham Jets at Headingley, Yorkshire were placed bottom of the nine teams in the North Group in this competition, having won only 1 of the 9 matches to date (4 of which were completely rained off).

As only the top four sides qualify for the quarter-finals, they probably needed to win all 5 of the remaining Group matches (including the Durham game) in order to hold out any hope of reaching the knock-out stage.

It rained all day. The match didn’t get near the starting blocks. The probability of Yorkshire reaching the next stage of this year’s T20 tournament moved a little closer to zero.

This being Leeds, there is always a Plan B, of course. The inclement weather meant that I had a little more time than otherwise to visit a couple of the city’s cultural attractions – the Leeds Art Gallery and the Leeds City Museum – in each case to seek out one of the city’s greatest sons.

The collection in the small Ziff Gallery in the Leeds Art Gallery includes three works by the Leeds-born artist, John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893). One of them is a classical piece – Iris (1886) – but it is the other two to which I am repeatedly drawn. Reflections on the Thames: Westminster and Nightfall Down the Thames were both painted in 1880 and are part of the Atkinson Grimshaw oeuvre that focused on urban scenes at night-time. The former is a particularly haunting piece, I think, in which the “reflections” incorporate not only the lights of the moon and Westminster Bridge in the river’s waters, but also – perhaps – the thoughts of the lonely woman plying her trade on the Embankment.

The Leeds City Museum in situated in the impressive building that was once the Mechanics’ Institute in Millennium Square. At the entrance to “The Story of Leeds” Exhibition are the portraits of 20 or so famous people from the city, including the dual rugby international Jason Robinson, the snooker player Paul Hunter, the boxer Nicola Adams and the cyclist Beryl Burton. However, it was in a non-sporting context that I was making my visit.

Arthur Louis Aaron was born in 1922 and attended Roundhay School (which, as it happens, was also where I was educated many years later). He enlisted in the RAF in 1941 and was promoted to Flight Sergeant two years later. It was in August 1943 – 76 years ago this month – that the Stirling bomber, of which he was captain, came under heavy fire whilst on a mission over Italy. Several of the crew were killed, including the navigator, and Ft Sgt Aaron himself was badly injured, losing the use of an arm and part of his face. Nonetheless, he saved the remaining crew by directing the stricken plane towards North Africa and a landing in Algeria. He died shortly afterwards.

The posthumous Victoria Cross that was awarded to Ft Sgt Aaron is exhibited, along with his other medals, in The Story of Leeds Exhibition together with a maquette to acknowledge his

life and accomplishments and the letter written to his parents by Sir Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command.

On Friday, I sat for a little while in the café of the Leeds City Museum. Outside, the rain continued to pour down. I had been prevented by the elements from watching a cricket match. (On the same evening, several thousand Ed Sheeran fans would have been drenched when watching their idol perform at a concert in Roundhay Park). The Yorkshire cricketers – with an average age of 26 for the squad that had been announced for that evening’s fixture – had been frustrated in their efforts to make progress in a one-day competition.

These were minor inconveniencies.

Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron VC DFM died at the age of 21.

Imperious Saints

18th August 2019

When I purchased my ticket (in February) for last Thursday’s Leeds versus St Helens Super League encounter at Headingley, I had expected a close contest between two of rugby league’s traditional heavyweights.

As it happens, the sides have had differing fortunes this season. Leeds have been in a struggle to avoid finishing in last place in the 12-team league table – with automatic relegation to the Championship – though a couple of recent victories have greatly aided their cause.

By contrast, St Helens have been the dominant side in 2019, having won the League Leaders Shield several weeks in advance of the Top 5 play-offs for the Super League title, which will begin next month. Indeed – remarkably – as things stood at the kick-off, the 14 point difference in the league table between St Helens and the teams in joint-second place (Warrington Wolves and Hull FC) was the same as that between Warrington/Hull and the bottom-place team (London Broncos). In addition, St Helens have secured a place in next Saturday’s Challenge Cup final (against Warrington) at Wembley.

In the build-up to the game, I had wondered if there might be an unfortunate echo of the Scotland-All Blacks match at Murrayfield in the group stage of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. (The £85 I invested for a seat at the end of the West Stand in the corner of the ground was, at that time, the most I had ever paid to see a sporting event). On that occasion, the Scottish team management took the game so seriously that they decided to field a near-second XV, so that the first-choice players could avoid injury and be ready for the crucial group encounter with Italy the following weekend. As I reported in An Ordinary Spectator, I thought that this was an absolutely appalling decision. Not only was it an insult to the spectators that had paid considerable sums to watch the match – and mine was by no means the most expensive ticket – it was hugely disrespectful to the opposition and to the tournament itself. (New Zealand won the match 40-0, scoring six tries in the process). Whether coincidence or not, I have not paid to watch the Scotland rugby team since.

The question was, therefore: given that St Helens might wish to protect their key players from injury in advance of the significant matches to come, would they follow Scotland’s lead and field a reserve team?

To their great credit, the answer was: no. Of the 17 players who represented St Helens in the Challenge Cup semi-final – and whom one might therefore suppose constituted the first-choice side – 11 played against Leeds. On the basis that some of the absentees had been unavailable through injury for the last couple of weeks, my assessment was that perhaps only two – the winger Tommy Makinson and the scrum-half Danny Richardson – were genuinely being shielded.

The risk of a mistimed injury was illustrated mid-way through the first half when St Helens’s French half-back Theo Fages was hurt in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Ash Handley from scoring the first Leeds try and had to receive treatment on the pitch for several minutes. Thankfully, however, he recovered to play a full – and influential – part in the remainder of the match.

The first half was evenly contested with Leeds holding a 10-6 lead until a few minutes before half-time. At that point, St Helens pressed firmly down on the accelerator and the first of three tries by the impressive centre Kevin Naiqama signalling the start of a period of dominance through to the hour mark in which they registered 30 unanswered points. A couple of late Leeds tries gave the score-line an element of respectability for the home side – including a second for Handley to make him the league’s joint-highest try-scorer this season, no mean feat in a side that has been generally struggling – but the final tally of 36-20 was an accurate reflection of St Helens’s superiority. The headline to Peter Smith’s report in the following day’s Yorkshire Evening Post – “Imperious Saints canter to victory” – summed it up pretty well.

This was my first visit to the Headingley ground since the completion of its major overhaul. The two fine new stands running along the full lengths of the touchlines complement the Extentia Stand at the St Michael’s Lane end of the ground, from which I had a full view of the proceedings. Only the triangular-shaped terrace for visiting supporters at the far end of the ground remains from the venue as it used to be. It is an attractive stadium and a worthy location for the Leeds club.

“All we need now is a team to match the surroundings”, said the elderly man to my left as the sun was setting behind the St Helens support and the kick-off time approached. The subsequent events on the pitch confirmed his analysis of the current status of the Leeds team.

My view from a raised perspective behind the posts enabled me to appreciate fully the speed with which St Helens transferred the ball across the pitch and the options provided in the different running lines taken by the support players. At the heart of the action was the excellent Jonny Lomax – Fages’s half-back partner – who invariably took the ball as third or fourth receiver from the play-the-ball and went through the repertoire of skills with his variations in passing and kicking and, occasionally, dummying the pass to run with the ball. His performance was a pleasure to watch as were, in their different ways, those of the aggressive prop forward Luke Thompson and the elusive Regan Grace on the left wing. “He’s a good player, is that” said my neighbour in admiration, after Grace had skilfully side-stepped the covering defence and registered St Helens’s opening try.

It’s a theme I have explored before. The pleasure of watching top sportsmen at the top of their game.

A Local Rivalry

5th August 2019

In Scotland, the footprint for the locations of the 10 teams in the Premier Division of the sport of shinty – the Mowi Premiership – covers a large area across the north and west of the country: from Strathpeffer, a couple of miles from the mouth of the Cromarty Firth, to Tignabruaich in Argyll. However, the fiercest rivalry is between two near neighbours – Kingussie Camanachd Club and Newtonmore Camanachd Club – separated by a mere three miles in the Spey valley.

Kingussie gained an entry into the 2005 edition of the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most successful sports team, having won their league for 20 consecutive years. This run was later extended to include all of the first 12 seasons of the Premier Division, which was established in its present format in 1996. However, the tables have turned in recent years: Newtonmore have won 8 of the last 9 league titles and are the current champions. Moreover, Newtonmore are also the holders of the prestigious Tulloch Homes Camanachd Cup, the knock-out trophy which they have won a record 33 times and which they will defend next month in the 2019 final. (Kingussie were eliminated by Kyles Athletic at the quarter-final stage).

I have reported on the intensity of local sporting rivalries before, of course. An Ordinary Spectator offers reflections on Headingley versus Roundhay (rugby union) and Hull FC versus Hull Kingston Rovers (rugby league) for example, as well as (at a slightly wider level) Yorkshire versus Lancashire in different forms of cricket. On Friday evening, during a visit to the Highlands (with my wife, Angela), we took the opportunity to observe how this played out in Premier Division shinty when Kingussie (sitting at the top of the league) hosted Newtonmore (in fourth place, but with games in hand).

The Kingussie ground at The Dell is about half a mile out of town on the road to the ruined Ruthven Barracks, which were sacked by the retreating Jacobites after their defeat at Culloden in 1746. The arena comprises a flat, well-maintained pitch, bounded by trees on two sides, with a small grandstand on the popular side and an electronic scoreboard to the right of the tea-room behind one of the goals. Overlooking the venue is the 1600 foot Creag Bheag, which Angela and I walked up and over the following day on a route that then took us from Loch Gynack to the scattered remains of the former Raitts Township, where community life was brought to an end by the Highland Clearances of 200 years ago.

Not surprisingly, the combination of the battle for local bragging rights (as well as league points) and the warm weather generated a sizeable crowd: perhaps 500 or so. We stood in the shade towards one end of the pitch, where we had a good view of the whole expanse as well as a clear sight of the intricacies of the close-quarter play when the ball came into our vicinity.

Although shinty’s playing area is much larger than that for rugby or soccer – pitches are usually 140-170 yards long – it was noticeable that the action shifted from one end to the other remarkably quickly, as the defensive players on both sides were adapt at striking the ball considerable distances in hurried circumstances. There were obvious overlaps with the skill-sets of not only golf and hockey, but also tennis: the re-starts when the ball went out of the play on the side lines took the form of a tricky double-handed overhead serve with the ball being struck by the toe-end of the stick.

What also came across very clearly was the full commitment of the players. It takes some bravery to compete for the ball, either in the air or on the ground, amidst the furious wielding and full-blooded swings of the sticks. Some of the players wore helmets, though not all. Early in the match I judged, in particular, that it would be very unlikely that I would ever volunteer for the position of goalkeeper: a decision that was emphatically confirmed later on.

The close matching of the two sides was evident. The play took the form of a series of close tussles, with very little time available to the player with the ball. Unlike in soccer, where a side might make a series of unchallenged passes, without gaining ground, in order to control the tempo of the game, there was no respite here. Likewise, unlike in rugby, where there can be a fluidity of movement through one side running or passing the ball through several phases of play, here there was a rapid turnover of possession between the sides.

I sensed that the individual players were familiar with their direct opponents. On some occasions, when there was a hold up in play, pairs of players seemed to engage in friendly conversation, as if enquiring about the health of their respective families. Seconds later, play having restarted, they would be crashing into each other without any holding back. I thought that the referee handled the game well. He seemed to pull up most of the obvious fouls, without detracting from the physical component of the encounter.

Kingussie had most of the early play and it was something of a surprise when, after 10 minutes, Newtonmore took the lead, a long-range shot being misjudged by the home goalkeeper. Kingussie’s mobile forward line posed a continual threat, however, and, after the interval, two impressive strikes appeared to have secured their side the win. Then, in the third minute of added time, Kingussie carelessly lost possession in midfield and a final Newtonmore attack saw them squeeze home the equaliser to the delight of the visiting support. (Unfortunately, there was a lack of available team sheets with which to identify the players). The final score was 2-2.

After the final whistle sounded, Angela and I walked down the touchline towards the tea-room. When we reached the end of the pitch, we noticed that no-one else seemed to have moved very far and that the players were still out on the pitch. At first, I thought that this might have been analogous to watching the rugby league in Toronto (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator), where the match is just part of an afternoon’s socialising for the local spectators. However, it transpired that for this Kingussie-Newtonmore encounter – with the league points having been shared – there was to be a separate penalty shoot-out to decide the winners of the Sir Tommy MacPherson Memorial Trophy.

We had a close view of this from behind the goal (though safely to the side). The players took turns to blast the ball at the respective goalkeepers, the latter attired sans helmet or gloves. The outcome was decided when one of the Newtonmore penalty-takers fired his shot straight on to the Kingussie goalkeeper’s fingers – a guaranteed fracture, I would have thought – and the ball stayed out of the net. The next Kingussie penalty was taken by the goalkeeper himself, who duly and emphatically dispatched his effort. When the final Newtonmore attempt sailed over the bar, high and handsome like an 8 iron, the cup was Kingussie’s.

And so ended an enjoyable evening. I had not only added another sport to the list of those on which I have reported in book or blog, but I had also – to my reward – done so in the context of the local community in which it features so significantly. If there were any doubt about that, it was assuaged by the sight of the toddlers-– some aged no more than 3 or 4 – running on the pitch, complete with their sticks of appropriate size, at half-time and at the end of the game. Some will be participants in future Kingussie-Newtonmore encounters, no doubt.

Postscript

The brief match report in today’s edition of The Scotsman states that Kingussie’s goalscorers were Ruaridh Anderson and James Falconer. The Newtonmore goals were scored by Fraser MacKintosh and Conor Jones.

Held in the Moment

11th July 2019

It was 50 years ago this week – on 14th July 1969 to be precise – that my friend and I grabbed our rucksacks at the end of the schoolday and rushed down to the Oakwood Clock to catch the number 21 bus. In Harehills, we changed to the 44 that took us straight to the Headingley Cricket Ground.

In those days – incredible as it might seem now – the gates were opened for free at the tea time of a test match. And so, shortly after play had resumed following the break on the fourth day, we found ourselves standing by the low brick wall behind the shallow banking of packed Members’ seating that ran from the “new” pavilion round towards the Old Pavilion and the Football Stand.

Initially requiring 303 to win in the fourth innings, the West Indies had reduced the target to below 100 with only three wickets down. It looked as if, in the last game of the three-match series, England would surrender their 1-0 lead.

The ground slopes down on that side of the arena; the spectator has a sense of looking up slightly to view the action. On the brighter early evenings – such as this – it can also be a strain looking towards the sun behind the Western Terrace. But we didn’t care. Our view was perfect.

Hindsight suggests that the West Indies were not the side they had been on the previous tours: there was no Hall or Griffith, for example. But, again, that did not register with us. We were still watching the glamorous visitors from the Caribbean. And the next man in was Gary Sobers.

Basil Butcher had been something of a liability in the outfield. The radio commentators had said that his arm was “thrown out” and so he could only return the ball with a curious underarm whipping action. His batting seemed to more than compensate, however. We watched as he entered the 90s.

The England captain Ray Illingworth turned to one of his side’s all-rounders – Barry Knight – to supplement the patient accuracy of Derek Underwood. I was intrigued by Knight’s bowling action: a bouncy medium-paced approach to the crease that reached a climax with a huge leap that seemed to halt all his forward momentum prior to delivering the ball.

And then Underwood got Butcher out – caught behind by the wonderful Alan Knott. The crowd cheered. In came the great man.

Ten minutes (and four balls) later, out he went again – for nought. Bowled by Knight, off an inside edge, attempting a forceful back-foot shot. I watched – awestruck and open-mouthed – as Sobers trudged off the field.

The scorebook reveals that the West Indies innings collapsed. Clive Lloyd was out cheaply. The Underwood/Knott combination struck again to dismiss John Shepherd. Four wickets fell for nine runs. England won by 30 runs the following morning.

But, half a century later, it is not the final outcome of the test match that seems to matter. Rather, my overwhelming memory is captured in a single dominant tableau: Sobers has completed his elegant follow-through – but his wicket is broken behind him. I can close my eyes and see it now. I am held in the moment – captured and captivated.

I was 14 years old and all was well with the world.

In the Black

23rd June 2019

My careful study of the horses’ and jockeys’ form in the early races resulted in consistent losses to the friendly bookmaker taking my money through the small hatch at the end of the corridor behind our box… [F]inancial equilibrium was restored with successes in the last two races, for which my choices were based solely on the names of the horses. (An Ordinary Spectator, page 191).

Given that horseracing/equestrianism is the second most popular spectator sport in Britain (albeit a long way behind soccer), I am conscious that its general absence from my chronicles of sports-watching represents something of gap. The sole reference to horseracing in An Ordinary Spectator concerned an enjoyable office outing to LingfieldPark in Surrey in the 1980s, when – as noted above with the usual rationalisation of the (very) occasional gambler – I claimed to have finished the day breaking even. Last Friday, accompanied by my wife Angela, I sought to reduce this spectating deficit by attending the evening race meeting at Ayr.

The Ayr Racecourse website informs us that the first organised horserace meeting in the town took place in 1771 with the move to the current site occurring in 1907. The establishment of the jumps circuit in 1950 meant that the course could hold both flat-racing and National Hunt meetings, the latter including (from 1966) the Scottish Grand National. A £20 million investment programme over the last dozen years or so has brought about a range of improvements to the course, which will host 32 days of racing this year.

Within horseracing, there is a hierarchy of rewards, the steep gradient of which parallels those seen in other professional sports. At Royal Ascot on Friday, the prize money for the winners of the 6 races – of which 4 were in the officially recognised Class 1 category – totalled in excess of £850,000. At Ayr, where the 7 races for the Tennent’s Race Night were in Classes 4 to 6 – the winners received a total of just under £30,000 out of the overall prize money of £55,000.

However, I have to say that for this casual spectator at Ayr, these financial differences were irrelevant. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, the programme was administered efficiently (with an excellent course commentator) and the racing was competitive, with most of the winners getting home by half a length or less. Our view from the trackside marquee gave a panorama of the full course; it was a very pleasant location in which to spend a bright midsummer evening.

It turned out that my gambling strategy was to echo that employed at LingfieldPark all those years ago. After the first two bets on short-priced horses (based on a close reading of the Racing Post) had been frustrated by narrow defeats at the winning post, I reverted to selecting by name for the Coca Cola Handicap. How could I resist a wager on the sport-related Trautmann – presumably named after the former German prisoner-of-war who famously played on for ManchesterCity after breaking his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final? The jockey – Alistair Rawlinson – rode a brilliant race, recovering from second-last at the turn into the straight to come through the field for a narrow win. Trautmann’s odds of 6 to 1 put me into the black, where I was to remain for the rest of the evening thanks to the later investments on Suwaan (each-way in the Gordon’s Pink Gin Handicap) and Mujassam (in the Magners Rose Handicap).

For the avoidance of doubt, I recognise that, on this occasion, the gambler’s luck ran in my direction. On my next visit to the trackside, the success rate could well be nought from seven.

As ever with sports spectating – particularly with those sports with which I am less familiar – it is in the detail of the event that the clearest impressions are gained. On this occasion, there was much to take in: the ritual of the owners meeting the jockeys in the centre of the parade ring before the race; the thick wad of banknotes in the bookmaker’s hand from which he paid out on Trautmann with a friendly “well done”; the pride in appearance taken by some of the spectators on their evening out (even though it was not a formal Ladies Night); the rumbling sound of hooves on turf as the horses passed the nearby winning post; the roar of triumph (by some) when the result of a photo finish was announced.

In the build-up to the two races that began at the end of the straight away to our left, rather than on the far side of the course, the respective fields passed directly in front of our marquee on their way to the start. Angela and I stood by the rail and watched in awed fascination as each horse and rider – a majestic combined presence – went by.

The Circle of Cricketing Life

6th June 2019

Last summer – recalled now as one of unremitting sunshine and scorching temperatures – my friend George Farrow and I managed the impressive feat of attending a one-day cricket match at Headingley (Yorkshire vs Nottinghamshire in the Royal London One-Day Cup) that was washed out without a ball being bowled. This year, we decided to improve our chances of seeing some action by arranging to watch the first two days of Yorkshire’s Specsavers County Championship game with Essex, which began on Monday on the same ground.

The general consensus amongst the cricket cognoscenti – and the online Yorkshire Members’ Forum – is that Essex are one of the three counties that are most likely to lift this year’s title (along with the champions, Surrey, and Somerset, who have already won the 2019 Royal London tournament). They have much the same squad as their championship-winning group of two years ago, though without the Pakistani fast-bowler Mohammed Amir and the experienced wicket-keeper James Foster. The Australian Peter Siddle has replaced Amir, whilst Essex have the bonus of the former England captain, Alastair Cook, being available for the whole summer following his retirement from test match cricket.

Cook ended his international career with the England records for the most tests (161), most consecutive tests (159, the world record), most tests as captain (59), most runs (12,472), most centuries (33) and most outfield catches (175). Equally importantly (if not more so) in an era when, for some, spiteful confrontation and perpetual aggression seemed to represent appropriate conduct on and off the cricket field – culminating in the shameful exposure and disgrace of the Australians’ “sandpaper-gate” in South Africa – it strikes me that Cook has always combined dignity and modesty in a way that is wholly admirable. Other than on television, I had not seen him play before and I was looking forward to doing so,

Given that, since retiring from test cricket, Cook has been knighted, I was also interested to see how he would be designated on the match scorecard. “AN Cook” was the answer.

George and I saw a full day’s play on Monday and the morning session on Tuesday, during which time Yorkshire compiled a first innings total of 390. As Essex then batted for 25 minutes before the rains came, I was pleased to be able to see Sir Alastair Cook walk out to open the innings. I was also able to see him walk back to the pavilion, as he was caught in the slips for two off the seventh delivery he received.

The evolution of the Yorkshire innings comprised all that is to like about first class cricket: an excellent knock by the opener Adam Lyth – who, in the neat description by Chris Waters in the following day’s Yorkshire Post, provided “the usual cinema reel of exquisite cover drives” – before falling five runs short of his century; a mid-innings collapse in which four wickets fell for 28 runs; a neat consolidating partnership by Johnny Tattersall and Dom Bess in the late middle order; a sharp piece of fielding by Sam Cook (no relation) to run out Gary Ballance; the break put on the Yorkshire scoring by the off-spinner Simon Harmer, who received a meagre reward for his long bowling stint with a solitary wicket late in the day.

The Yorkshire supporters in the East Stand were fully engaged by the action: “No ball, umpire. Get a grip” shouted one, when Ravi Bopara appeared to overstep the crease in his delivery stride; “Good fielding” acknowledged another, when the sprawling Nick Browne – not the fastest of movers in the outfield – valiantly dived full-length in front of us to prevent a boundary.

A couple of the names were new to me. Will Fraine opened the batting on his Yorkshire first-class debut and seemed to ally a sound temperament with a solid technique; it was a surprise when he was bowled for 39. On the Essex side, Will Buttleman, a 19 year-old debutant wicket-keeper, was equally impressive, taking three catches and conceding only one bye in a Yorkshire innings that spanned 125 overs.

As with all sports, there is a circle of life to first-class cricket. Sir Alastair Cook is winding down his career (hopefully with another couple of seasons to come) after 13 years in the test match trenches. The other (near) veterans in this match included Siddle and Bopara at age 34, the 35 year-old Yorkshire captain Steve Patterson and the Essex skipper, Ryan ten Doeschate, who is 38. The hope must be that the game of first-class cricket – including the county championship – survives long enough in its present state for the likes of Fraine and Buttleman to have rewarding careers of similar longevity.

Footnote

The Yorkshire/Essex match ended today in a draw. With most sides now having completed 5 of their 14 fixtures, Somerset head the county championship table.

Game Management

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.