Defending champions Leinster mastered the conditions to prevail 18-15 in the Pro14 final at Celtic Park, leaving Stuart Hogg and Glasgow to reflect on what might have been
Leinster reign in the rain as they defeat Glasgow 18-15 to win Guinness Pro14 title
The Leinster dynasty continues. A fortnight after the Heineken Cup was prised from their grasp by Saracens, the men from Dublin responded in familiar fashion by beating Glasgow 18-15 in the Guinness Pro14 final at Celtic Park.
It was their ninth major trophy in the past decade but the match will not go down as a classic, with handling errors high on a day when the rain did its best to spoil the party. Perhaps the clouds over Glasgow were weeping for Stuart Hogg, whose final outing for the Warriors before joining Exeter summed up the team’s frustrations.
The Scotland full-back had a super game of verve and invention – even his spiral kicks are a thing of rare beauty – but will not recall his part in Garry Ringrose’s try with fondness, Hogg’s attempted clearance being charged down by Luke McGrath for Ringrose to pounce as the stray ball spun deep into the corner.
That equalizing try came moments after No 8 Matt Fagerson had put Glasgow ahead on 14 minutes and it’s a measure of how champion teams respond to adversity. Saracens, playing Gloucester in the English Premiership semi-final earlier in the day, also struck back from the restart after going behind early to Ben Morgan’s try.
The abiding memory of Hogg, however, is of the player leaving the pitch suddenly some 15 minutes from the end. Having caught one of the countless aerial balls put up by Leinster, he was brought crashing to earth from a great height by Rob Kearney’s illegal challenge. “Clumsy and careless,” said referee Nigel Owens, who issued a yellow card after video inspection.
Hogg was deemed to have landed on his back and shoulder, not his head, but you couldn’t help feel that Kearney’s challenge, when Hogg was at his most vulnerable, was the sort the red card jeopardy was designed for – watch it below and see what you think. Presumably due to a mandatory HIA, Hogg was instantly replaced by Huw Jones, depriving Glasgow of their best player as they strove for the two scores needed to overturn an 18-10 deficit.
Kearney, whose sportsmanship is beyond reproach and who to his credit apologised to Hogg, thus spent the same time off the pitch as Glasgow centre Kyle Steyn, who was somewhat harshly yellow-carded after being pinned in a Leinster attacking ruck.
Glasgow were also left to rue an horrendous-looking injury to Fraser Brown 25 minutes in. The hooker got his leg trapped whilst he was cleared out by Tadhg Furlong attempting a jackal. Happily he appeared on the bench later to watch the rest of the match.
The match had enjoyed a breathless start, almost three minutes’ frenzied action elapsing before the first pause in play. “This is as close to an International as I’ve seen in club colours,” said Premier Sports pundit Chris Paterson at one point.
Protracted periods on the Leinster line yielded little reward for Glasgow and, despite Johnny Sexton looking out of sorts, the Irish province forged a first-half lead through Ringrose’s opportunism and a pick and go by Cian Healy, who had Scott Fardy latched on as he plunged over the line. Ex-Wallaby Fardy had a magnificent game but was to be pipped to the Man of the Match award by Ireland prop Healy.
Leinster’s line speed regularly forced Glasgow back inside and by not committing numbers to the rucks they often confronted Glasgow with a full defensive line. They won the aerial battle, targeting DTH van der Merwe in particular, and won most of the scrum penalties.
For the all excellence of men like Zander Fagerson and Scott Cummings, Glasgow just couldn’t break through and you felt that when Leinster turned round 15-10 to the good, the writing was already on the wall for the hosts.
The second half degenerated into, at times, a tedious slugfest. Sexton, growing into the game, poked a grubber kick through and there followed an interminable sequence of reset scrums close to Glasgow’s line.
Later, many in the crowd of 47,128 – a record for a final in this competition – whistled furiously as Leinster went through 24 phases of pick-and-drives to run down the clock. “Leinster have sucked the life out of the game,” said Martyn Williams in commentary.
It was reminiscent of Munster in one of their Heineken finals and it is entirely legitimate and intelligent. It’s just not pretty to watch, as Leinster coach Leo Cullen conceded afterwards.
Glasgow did make it down to Leinster’s territory in the end, but a clamped tackle by the centres Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw on Steyn, forcing a maul turnover, epitomized the suffocating defence of the reigning champions.
Replacement hooker Grant Stewart raised pulses with a 76th-minute try but a knock-on, as Glasgow tried to launch a last raid from deep, ended their hopes. Their players looked devastated and rightly so, because they know they can produce better than this.
“It was a massive disappointment,” said their coach Dave Rennie. “I think we’re a better side that we were on the park tonight. We had a couple of opportunities to extend our lead at 7-5, didn’t take them, and we probably over-kicked. We just didn’t do enough.”
Asked about the impact of Leinster’s Heineken Cup defeat that cost them the chance of attaining the ‘double double’, Healy said: “That hurt a lot. The lads carried that. We tried to park it but something like that affects the squad and what we want to achieve, so you have to show what you’re about and bounce back.”
Bounce back they did and to their four European Cups and one Challenge Cup they can now boast six Celtic League titles in its various guises, the first coming in the inaugural year of 2001-02. They are a remarkable team.
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