IF GLASGOW are to beat Leinster in today’s Guinness PRO14 Grand Final, they will have to tighten up some aspects of their play while ensuring they do not become inhibited in others. That is easier said than done, of course, but the omens from their recent games are good.
Last week’s extraordinary 50-20 semi-final win over Ulster showcased the Warriors at their best, but at the same time exposed some of the deficiencies they will need to iron out at Celtic Park this weekend. They won by seven tries to three and might easily have scored a few more, but there is no way they will score seven tonight – and if they concede three again, that might be enough to put the game out of their reach.
In other words, Dave Rennie’s side will need to be more clinical against Leinster when it comes to taking their chances, and more focused too when forced to defend for long spells. Having said that, they have clearly strengthened their defence over the past month or two, and the head coach is confident that his team can now tough it out in tight encounters as well as blowing some teams away in looser, less demanding matches.
“It’s something we’ve been striving for all year,” Rennie said about his team’s ability to win arm-wrestles. “We’ve talked about not wanting to be an east-west side.
“So you’ve got to have a decent enough pack for a start, good at lineout at scrum. Our maul is as good as anyone in the competition. We’ve probably scored more tries than most in the past ten weeks.
“We try to have an edge about us, be prepared to go through the middle of teams and shake their defence. That means that, when we do go to space, we haven’t got a wall in front of us.
“It’s taken us a while to maybe get to grips with that game. We did it in patches last year but have done it much better this year. Probably what helps, too, is we have just about a full-strength side on the park. That’s massive for us. And, looking at Leinster, they’re pretty similar.”
There is indeed a similarity in that respect: injury has deprived Leinster of giant lock Devin Toner, while Glasgow are missing players such as hooker George Turner and lock Tim Swinson among those who would at least have been in contention for a place in their 23. But there is a glaring imbalance when it comes to experience – one that will weigh heavily in the Irish province’s favour if the Warriors fail to deal properly with the big occasion.
Glasgow have reached the league play-offs in seven of the last eight years, winning the title in 2015, and they have got to the quarter-finals in Europe in two of the last three. It is a record that Scottish rugby can be proud of after the barren spell that preceded it, but it is also a record that pales into modesty when set against Leinster’s achievements: they have won the league five times since 2002 and are the reigning champions, and have also won four Champions Cups, having only had their defence of the trophy ended by Saracens in the final a fortnight ago.
So their squad has that deep, sustained experience of what is needed to win at this level, and in stand-off Johnny Sexton they have a playmaker who has accumulated a wealth of knowledge. Adam Hastings, his opposite number, will certainly be tested to the limit today, and may need to play the best game of his career if he is going to put his side on the front foot. The likes of Warriors captain Callum Gibbins, too, will have to be in optimal form if they are to keep Leinster at bay at the breakdown.
The full Hogg
But the key player for Glasgow has to be Stuart Hogg, who is playing his last game for the team before moving to Exeter and is extremely eager to sign off on a winning note. “We tried to put the brakes on him today – he went berserk yesterday at training,” Rennie said after the captain’s run at Celtic Park. “Massive high-speed numbers.
“He’s seen that the field is a little bit shorter, so he was lining up some kicks from the opposition 22m line type of thing. He’s an excitement machine. He’s desperate to go out on a big note and all we need him to do is to play as well as he has in the last few weeks and hopefully it’s enough.
“He’s excitable at the best of times, but it’s infectious. He’s tough on himself – the biggest thing is that when Hoggy makes a mistake he beats himself up a bit. He understands the importance he has for us, so he wants to perform well and there couldn’t be a better occasion for him.”
Hogg’s kicking could play as big a role as his counter-attacking ball in hand, but, weather permitting, Glasgow will not deviate too much from their usual adventurous style. “It might be a bit of rain tomorrow and a bit greasy on top,” Rennie added. “You might see a little bit more kicking.
“We’re not going to change. I don’t think Leinster will change either. They’re very good at hanging onto the ball and prepared to go an inch at a time.
“We have to hunt well. It’s a hell of a lot easier to defend three or four phases and try and steal one rather than defend for 30-odd. They have slick starter moves over the first two or three phases, so we’ve done a fair bit of work round that.
“I’m sure they’ll have other things up their sleeve. They’re certainly prepared to play up our end of the field.
“It’s the two best sides in the competition. Both sides won their sides of the draw, so it’s a fitting final between two positive sides. Should be a hell of an occasion.”