What is it with Glasgow? Can there be a more erratic side in European rugby? Two years ago they were the team with the Killer Bs back row, the swashbuckling Warriors from the Mean City who finished third in the Magners League. Then, unaccountably, last season they turned into paper tigers, ending up second bottom, below perennial strugglers Treviso and Connacht, with just six wins out of 22.
This year coach Sean Lineen’s men are cramming the good, bad and ugly into one season. The bad was meek losses away to Ulster and home to Munster in the first two matches of the season, results which put Lineen under yet more pressure. The fleeting glimpse of ugly was the home loss to Treviso, the Italian side’s first RaboDirect Pro12 win on the road. But mostly, bafflingly, it’s been good, which is why they’re in the top half of the league table and still in contention to qualify for the Heineken Cup knockout stages for the first time in the club’s history. There have been superb league wins at Leinster, Cardiff Blues and Aironi, and equally impressive home wins over the Dragons and Ospreys. Mainly, though, there was that dramatic Heineken Cup victory over Sir Ian McGeechan’s Bath in a match that the Scots were never supposed to win. They did it ugly, too, playing within themselves but winning with a flourish as talisman Richie Gray touched down as the game reached a fiery crescendo.
“That game epitomised everything about this club, about the spirit we have, about the way we keep coming back,” says skipper Al Kellock. “There’s a belief here and a work ethic that stands us in good stead. We didn’t play well against Bath, we didn’t exert the control we’d wanted and we gave them the ball more often than I care to remember, but it was sheer determination and a fantastic scrambling defence that saw us through.”
Looking from the outside, it’s difficult to understand why Glasgow’s form veers so wildly from one extreme to the other, but to Kellock the cause is pretty clear. It comes down to cash. The club’s inability to pay the going rate means that as soon as a player impresses, he’s whisked away to England or France. Glasgow are, in the football parlance, a selling club. Kelly Brown, the Lamont brothers, Euan Murray, Dan Parks, Jason White and most recently Max Evans and Richie Vernon have all left Firhill for pastures new. The decision of the fans’ favourite Gray to leave for Sale in May is simply the latest in a long line of cherries that have been picked.
“No one has higher expectations than the players themselves,” says Kellock. “But with hindsight the truth is that maybe more was expected of us last season than we could deliver. Some key senior players had left, we had four or five of the Scotland players out with long-term injuries, while John Barclay and Richie Gray were given the back end of the season off in the run-up to the World Cup.
“That’s more than half of the first team gone, and that included Dan Parks (who moved to Cardiff). When you change your stand-off – especially if you change from a kicker ten like Dan to a player like Ruaridh (Jackson), who likes to run with the ball – the whole way the team is structured has to change. So last season was, in many ways, a transitional year, but it was also one where a lot of the young guys got blooded and we’re seeing the benefits of that this year.”
It is those players who have reinvigorated the Warriors, not the old guard, edging Leinster in Dublin and sticking it to the Blues in Cardiff while the World Cup players were away. Up front, 21-year-old flanker and stand-in skipper Rob Harley was the pick of the bunch, but locks Nick Campbell, 21, and Tom Ryder, 25, plus prop Jon Welsh, 25, and No 8 Ryan Wilson, 21, also stepped up to the mark. In the backs 20-year-old stand-off Duncan Weir has put himself in contention for a Scotland start and full-back Stuart Hogg, 19, has been a revelation.
“We’re erratic because we’re always at a different place on what can be a very steep learning curve,” says Kellock. “Right now we’re in a good place, with the young guys buying into that work ethic and absorbing the little things that make the difference between success and failure. We’ve absorbed the pain and now we’re looking ahead because we may have lost Richie, but I came back from New Zealand to find that we now have three genuine options at stand-off.
“Longer-term, things are looking up. We’ve got a new CEO (at Murrayfield) who is talking about putting more resources into the pro teams, and we’ll be moving to a new stadium at Scotstoun, which is a fantastic facility. But more than that, we’ve now got a bunch of guys who know this is a fantastic place to live and play rugby, a city with a really rich rugby heritage. That’s why I believe in this team, why I recently signed a three-year contract, and that’s why we’re now becoming more and more difficult to beat.”
This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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