GLASGOW WARRIORS head coach Dave Rennie has been at pains in recent weeks to stress that we should not get carried away with his team’s bright start to the season, but it was hard not to get caught-up in their swash-buckling joie de vivre – which meant Saturday evening’s 24-15 defeat in their opening match of this year’s Champions Cup campaign felt a bit like being hit by a runaway bus.
Exeter Chiefs delivered a painful reminder of where the team really stands in the European pecking order, by squeezing the Warriors so tight up-front, and harassing them so mercilessly behind the scrum, that the visiting team were forced to play a high-risk brand of rugby which was completely unsuited to the greasy conditions.
The great thing about this Warriors team is that they play with a freedom which is an anathema to much of the stodgy and unimaginative fair we witness on a week to week basis in the Aviva Premiership and the French Top 14, but what we saw on Saturday is that there is a very distinct difference between taking a calculated gamble because you believe that the reward outweighs the risk, compared to throwing caution to the wind because you have no other options.
Rennie lamented the number of errors his team made, but that’s what happens when you are under so much pressure. Learning to cope with that is the big challenge which faces this team as they look to fully realise their undoubted potential.
There is a reason why the Warriors hadn’t made it out of the pool stage of the Champions Cup before last season, and why they were blown away by eventual winners Saracens when they did eventually progress to the quarter-finals – it takes time to develop the resilience and rugby nous to find a way of winning when playing at a level beyond your established comfort zone. The fact that there has been nothing but English or French finalists in the Champions Cup since 2012 tells an important story about how useful the PRO14 really is when it come to preparing teams for Europe.
It should be taken as a mark of respect that the Chiefs did their homework and came up with a plan to neutralise the visiting team’s threats.
They declined several kickable penalties and opted to build pressure instead through barrage upon barrage of close range assaults, knowing that the Warriors would battle for every ball and grind themselves into the ground in the process.
The Chiefs were also confident that they had enough power to, ultimately, turn that close range pressure into seven points instead of three – which they did with three tries scored by tighthead prop Harry Williams, second-row Jonny Hill and number eight Sam Simmonds.
“We thought during the week it would get very dewy and that under the pressure of the first round of the competition it would be quite hard to play a lot of phase play, so we took that decision not to play too much phase play, especially in the first half,” said Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter.
“And I think that was vindicated. There was a lot of stray balls flying around and because we felt our scrum could become a weapon … if you feed the other team the ball and they make mistakes then you get the put-in. Whereas, if you are the team playing and making mistakes then the opposition get the put-in and it becomes much harder. So, that worked quite well in our favour.”
Finn Russell apparently likes to make his decisions late, which is great so long as he has some decent options to choose from. The Chiefs did not contest on the deck and fanned out across the park instead, then came up fast on the outside to suffocate the Warriors wide game.
Could the Warriors have forced the Chiefs to get narrower and less pro-active in defence if their big boys had been able to generate a bit more momentum by picking up at the base and going through the middle?
It was a pretty frustrating match to watch from a Warriors perspective, with the team spending long periods stuck on the back foot trying to absorb their opponents’ awesome forward power. We can complain that the Chiefs lacked imagination, but, really, the Warriors failed to make them look for a scenic path to victory. With route one so effective, why would they consider doing anything else?
“To get that close to the try-line, you have to do a lot of good things for the other 100 metres of the pitch. You don’t pick-and-go for 100 metres, so a lot of good play gives us that moment and then it is up to our forwards to capitalise on it,” explained Baxter.
“We practice it a fair bit but what people don’t realise is that once you start believing in something that kind of makes it work. So, if you go there single-minded that you are going to pick-and-go then it is quite simple, whereas if you go with six options – we might pick-and-go, we might lay-off a pass, we might go wide – then you can actually fracture your attacking purpose. So, we’re quite basic when we get to that situation.”
An early scrum penalty allowed Russell to edge the visitors into the lead. That seemed like a good omen but the Warriors struggled in this area thereafter. The loss of Fraser Brown, who collapsed with a knee problem in the seventh minute, did not help the Warriors set-piece – but it would be pushing it to suggest that the absence of the hooker was the key reason behind the team’s travails when the two packs came together.
“If you put a lot of store in a game like this on starting well, sometimes the emotions with how you deal with things early on can count against you. We had the better scrum today and the overall game showed that, and yet we got pushed off one early on, so we didn’t deal with that very well – but once we got through the first five or six minutes, it became more about what we did in the game and the forwards got more and more control,” said Baxter.
“Not every decision went our way; we didn’t get a penalty at every scrum and we didn’t make every maul count, but over the course of the game they counted enough to be a deciding factor,” he added.
The Glasgow scrum was a concern before this match and it will continue to be targeted until convincing evidence is put forward to suggest that it is no longer vulnerable.
The fact that Warriors were still in this game right up to the end shows their resilience and their ability to punish any opposition lapses. Seymour rose majestically above a leaden-footed Phil Dollman to grab his team’s first try in the ninth minute; and Lee Jones got in on the act in the second half after the Chiefs coughed up possession at a ruck and scrum-half Nic White failed to deal with Russell’s kick through.
But the Chiefs were too well-drilled and disciplined to provide any more of those sorts of half-opportunities which the Warriors are so good at punishing.
Just as it took several seasons to gradually get more and more competitive in the PRO12 (as it was then known) before finally lifting the title in 2015, so it will take more than one season for the Warriors to become real big-hitters in Europe.
On their day, they can certainly expect to deliver a bloody nose to any side they come up against, but for that to happen a lot of things have to go their way – including some factors which are currently beyond their own control. The Warriors need to become masters of their own destiny.