On a night when it was raining cats, dogs, budgies, and humans, both Glasgow Warriors and Ulster gave up ball.
The official statistics claim that the error count had it at seven Glasgow fumbles to Ulster’s six, and 11 penalties conceded to Ulster’s 10. However, this only tells half the story. Glasgow lost because of where they had to play the ball, and the location of their errors.
Because of losing the ball in upright runs and getting nudged at the breakdown, Glasgow were fired down into their own half by Ruan Pienaar. Any great work at the scrum was also undone by shaky lineout practice, and ultimately this is where the decisive score came from.
Last season Glasgow had the second best defence in the RaboDirect Pro12, behind the Ospreys. That year the defence was based on the principles of hustling your teammates off the line and dragging a partner into a ‘sting’ tackle with you, to prevent offloads.
When it works Glasgow’s defence is a progressive dance. Your partner changes with each spin, but you know the steps. Mavericks like Chris Fusaro are allowed to fly round the line to smack Pienaar late, but everyone else is aware of their role.
Last night this broke down. Pumped up after last week’s impressive start and disappointing decline, the Warriors charged and chased too exuberantly. The kick chase had a wayward shape and too many men piled off their feet or allowed Ulster to pile off their feet.
This was an ugly side to an already ugly match, as men routinely grabbed a buddy and dived over the top of the breakdown. The referee allowed this, and Glasgow, in particular, were too nice in their dealings with the mass of Ulstermen on their side.
Referees are allowing this hideous breakdown anomaly to continue.
However, Glasgow were on the referee’s radar for other activities in this area. From Al Kellock flying round before the ball was picked up, to players hitting mauls from the sides, it was a case of forgetting the basics because points are so important in the Heineken Cup.
This was a principle that shaped attack as well.
Caught in a frustrating cycle of retrieving Pienaar kicks and running it back at him, Glasgow did not take stock. Single runners went in upright and were ‘choked’ or held up by three men. On several occasions Pete Horne, Tom Ryder and Dougie Hall were on their feet too early and the likes of Chris Henry, Johann Muller and Iain Henderson were allowed to get their hands over.
It must be said that Ryan Wilson was guilty of running into clinches a few times, but he also made the impressive half-breaks and offloads that got Glasgow going forward.
In a positive sense it should also be said that Stuart Hogg caught kicks and kicked brilliantly once he got over a few bumps. He could have been brought into the line a bit more when Horne and Ruaridh Jackson were confident enough to switch first-receiver roles, but Pete Murchie seemed unwilling to drop to full-back.
On a dry day the switching of first receivers would perhaps give rhythm, but only a few times did Jackson look confident in the pass he was getting and giving to make a handsome gallop. The rest of the time it was one out runners or chips that Jared Payne could read. Scott Wight put in a beautiful cross-field kick for Niko Matawalu to score in the corner, but it was a shake-up too late.
In the scrum a lot of credit must go to the Warriors’ front row. Grant had a consistent body height all game and Mike Cusack had Tom Court swinging his hips out, straightening his legs and generally shifting his body after every hit.
However, Dougie Hall did not cover himself in glory when it was his throw in.
Defensively as well, Glasgow are going to have to refocus. Too many times they allowed Ulster an uncontested jump, and if they were to drive back at them they would creep round the sides with an unusually high body height.
Losing Richie Gray has meant that Kellock is the only legitimate defensive option for Scotland. To me Ryder does not have the reach or dexterity that Gray had, and Wilson does not have the instinct.
For example: 59 minutes in and Fusaro and Josh Strauss made way for John Barclay and Rob Harley. In the Ulster lineout a ball is fired to the spot where Ryder, Wilson and Harley could have gone up. Instead Ryder and Wilson try to sack, slowly. Ulster drive, and as Henderson secures ball Ryder is penalised for getting himself on the outside after burrowing from the centre.
Whether or not this was a correct refereeing decision or not, it is worth noting that Ulster were gifted ball.
From the penalty they jumped into the corner, and at the next lineout drive Harley and Ryder are again caught creeping up the sides as the maul spins into the try area. Chris Henry got the score.
The scrum and general enthusiasm were good. It was just allowing errors in the wrong areas while forcing errors too far from their danger zone that led to the loss.
Warriors will be working on keeping the ball carrier on their feet the next time they face Ulster, but in a way that means they can park over ball rather than allowing a ‘choke’, a guddle or a pile-up. They will also work on their defensive lineout. If they sort these they can challenge the more abrasive sides.
In attack they need a consistent back line. Injuries are killing them, but with the right balance they can attain the rhythm that was so evidently missing against Ulster. Especially with Strauss, Wilson and Henry Pyrgos operating so well as a team, you need to know the ball can be zipped to an area of weakness effectively.