THEIR failure to make it through to the knock-out stages in Europe is a long standing itch which has got harder to bear with every passing year. In Gregor Townsend’s last season as Glasgow Warriors coach, they have laid down an impressive marker and are now excellently placed to finally break that hoodoo. They played with a pace and purpose that Leicester could not cope with.
“There was parts of that performance which were really outstanding. The forward pack in particular with the way they scrummed, the way they carried ball and the way they defended the line-out drive,” said Townsend, after watching his team hammer an English behemoth by five tries to one.
“The occasion was brilliant, the supporters were great, it was a fantastic night for our wingers, and for Zander [Fagerson] to go up against two very good loosehead props and look really controlled and strong. So, it was great to see the players do well but there is still a bit of work to do, and its mainly my coaching because we had a few attack plays that didn’t go well today – we could have had more possession in their half,” he added.
After a cagey start, the game erupted in the 14th minute when Matt Toomua (Leicester’s marquee signing for this season, who was making his debut after moving from the Brumbies during the summer) up-ended Finn Russell in a tackle which, at first sight, looked certain to earn the Australian internationalist a red card. Russell’s teammates were incensed and piled into a melee which ended up consuming all 30 players, although no real punches were thrown.
A temporary truce was eventually brokered. The video evidence was viewed on the big screen and it did not look good for Toomua. He lifted Russell off the ground and then sent the stand-off back down with deliberate force so that he was going to land on ether his head, neck or shoulder. Fortunately, Russell managed to free an arm to break his fall – but does that mitigate the culprit’s actions?
Toomau knew he was in trouble. His face gave it away. But French referee Mathieu Reynal had no appetite for making such a big call that early in a game this important, and ended up brandishing only a yellow.
Warriors took little comfort from Hogg blasting home the resultant penalty which evened the scores after Owen Williams’ third minute opener.
“You can understand why it was a yellow because Finn didn’t land on his head, and that’s the law,” said Townsend, diplomatically.
Richard Cockerill, Leicester’s director of rugby, was rather more forthright in defence of his player.
“He lifts him past the horizontal, he lands on his back: it’s a yellow card. It’s exactly what World Rugby say it is – he deserved to go to the bin. It’s a man’s game. Boys will be boys. It was correct protocol and correct decision,” he stated.
Regardless of the rights or wrongs of that refereeing call, the pressure gauge was now through the roof and there were a couple more minor skirmishes, which seemed to suit Leicester better than it did the Warriors – especially when Ryan Wilson found himself following Toomau to the sin-bin for a lazy offside a few minutes later.
Leicester did what Leicester do best. They kicked to the corner, caught the line-out and drove the ball over the line, with Brendon O’Connor claiming the touchdown.
It was time for the Glasgow players to cool down and start playing their own game – and to their credit, they did so excellently, building pressure through several crisp phases deep inside Leicester territory, until Leonardo Sarto appeared in the scrum-half position at the base of a ruck about ten yards out, sensed a gap on the right fringe and took full advantage.
“I think the first fifteen minutes had mistakes from both teams and there were a lot of penalties and a bit of kicking as both teams adjusted to the pitch, then we certainly responded well after that incident [Toomau’s carding] when we really went at Leicester,” said Townsend. “But the more important incident was conceding the yellow card for offside and then the try. After that our players must have got together and said: Right, we’re going for it.”
Toomua returned to the action amid cacophony of jeers from a highly animated packed house at Scotstoun. With Wilson still in the bin, Warriors were now a man down, but it didn’t matter a jot. They were straight back on the attack, and they doubled their account when Fraser Brown hit the line at pace, barged through Graham Kitchener, hit the deck but bounced straight back up, and then finally made it over the line.
It was breathless, compelling stuff. A Sarto break got Warriors right back into the danger zone, Tim Swinson and the recently restored Wilson also got in the act, and this time Pyrgos sensed the gap on the left fringe of a ruck on Leiceter’s line and burrowed his way over.
A second Williams penalty stemmed the Warriors onslaught, although Hogg had an opportunity to restore his team’s 12 point advantage just before the break, but his long-range penalty from well inside his own half didn’t have the legs.
Russell kicked a penalty in the 54th minutes. It was an ugly looking effort but scraped over the bar. His next involvement was at the start of something far more pleasing to the eye, with his tap penalty inside thevWarriors’ 22 launching a sweeping attack involving Swinson, a slaloming Sarto, Brown, Nick Grigg, Hogg and finally Rory Hughes, who powered towards the line but was pulled down inches short.
Warriors kept up the pressure. Logovii Mulipola, the comically hirsute Samoan prop (he looks like an overweight cousin of René Higuita, the former Columbian goalkeeper), was sin-binned just minutes after coming on as a replacement for standing up at a scrum on his own line; then Gordon Reid looked for all the world like he was going to celebrate his 100th Warriors appearance with a try when Pyrgos picked him out unmarked on the left touchline just five yards from the whitewash, but the big prop couldn’t take the pass.
Russell kept the scoreboard ticking over with another penalty, before Mark Bennett (a late replacement for Alex Dunbar, who pulled out during the warm-up with a chest complaint) snatched the bonus point try in sensational style, by intercepting Matthew Tait’s loose pass and charging home from 70 metres.
Not to be outdone, man-of-the-match Sarto then got in the act, latching on to Freddie Burns’ brainless pass and cantering home from about the same distance for interception try number two.
It was now getting silly. Winning in Europe is not supposed to be this easy for Glasgow. Munster away next Saturday should be a sterner challenge, but after this rampant performance the Warriors will travel to Limerick with a buzz which will be hard to contain.
“When you are winning you are full of confidence, and the way our forward pack played we can take on any pack in our pool. And we’ve got an extra couple of days’ recovery which is great after a tough week in which we only got back from Parma on Sunday night. This week we can watch Munster play on Sunday against Racing and have three good days of coaching, because we’ll need it,” concluded Townsend.
Glasgow: S Hogg; L Sarto, M Bennett, S Johnson, R Hughes; F Russell, H Pyrgos; G Reid, F Brown, Z Fagerson, T Swinson,J Gray, R Harley, R Wilson, J Strauss. Subs: N Grigg, S Lamont, A Allan, P MacArthur, A Price, L Wynn, M Fagerson.
Leicester: T Veainu; A Thompstone, M Tait, M Toomua, T Brady; O Williams, B Youngs; E Genge, T Youngs, D Cole, G Kitchener, M Fitzgerald, B O’Connor, L McCaffrey. Subs: H Thacker, L Mulipola, G Bateman, P Betham, E Slater, F Burns, W Evans, S Harrison.
Glasgow: Try: Sarto 2, Brown, Pyrgos, Bennett; Con: Russell 4; Pen: Hogg, Russell 2.
Leicester: Try: O’Connor; Con: Williams; Pen: Williams 2.