In the opening 40 minutes of this pulsating game Glasgow did their best to erase the sour memory of the 6 Nations in one fell swoop, before bringing back more than the odd unhappy memory that as it turns out only served to set the scene for a nerve-wracking finale.
The first half had everything that you would want from a Glasgow performance: unsettling defence, offloading at pace, forwards making ground, backs that are hard to bring down and above all an utter commitment to attack.
Stuart Hogg was at the centre of it, continuing his fine running form with an opening try that was created by Richie Vernon – filling in at 12 as Pete Horne moved inside to 10 to deputise for the late call-off Finn Russell. Vernon popped the ball to Hogg who scampered between a couple of defenders to drive the ball to the base of the posts – at least that is how it looked, to the delight of laws purists everywhere.
After a pause to remove the young tighthead Zander Fagerson (in only his second start he lasted 9 minutes sadly), Glasgow resumed the onslaught on a Leinster side that wasn’t their top side but still had players of the calibre of Reddan, Gopperth and Kirchner in the side. They were never going to stay quiet for long and after some great scramble defence from Glasgow denied their first couple of chances, good darting breaks from Madigan gave McFadden a scoring chance. You could say the grounding was a little iffy (Niko did) but it still looked like a try and an excellent conversion out-wide into a strong wind brought it back to 7-10.
Glasgow’s attacking brand of rugby seemed to be to referee Owens’ liking and he did much that seemed right and proper, including whistling squint feeds and stamping out players holding others in the ruck and begging him to award penalties.
Tommy Seymour almost had another of his famous interceptions after he brilliantly read a long missed pass and got his fingers to it but couldn’t get any more control than that on it.
Richie Vernon had a bit of a golden spell and continued to impress at centre. After some great offloading by Strauss and Swinson (who excelled here where he seemed to struggle for Scotland), the other Big Richie popped up twice in the same move, breaking free of Leinster’s defenders with a solid line and placing over the line by the post. He almost created a third, as a grubber from Hogg took a lucky bounce into his hands but the best that could be said about Vernon’s pass was that the guys in the stand would have caught it easily.
Glasgow were playing so well that Seymour could afford a wry smile at the pass that had soared above his head.
The third try came soon enough, with Mark Bennett creating it on a perfect outside centre’s line, cutting back inside and opening up the defence before finishing it himself. Just to prove it wasn’t the Vernon, Hogg and Seymour show, he took over kicking when Hogg limped off and nailed a long range penalty to make it 7-27 at half time.
The wind was strong, and would probably be worth some points in the second half, but Glasgow were nailed on for the bonus and the win.
It was a horrible restart from Glasgow.
Sleepiness around the ruck straight led to a simple, and soft try from Isaac Boss. If there was a worry – other than the inability of Scottish teams to play properly in the 40-60 minute period – it was the relative strength in depth off the benches. Leinster were calling on the likes of Boss, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin while Glasgow had – with all due respect – Conor Braid and Glenn Bryce.
Another penalty for Madigan followed soon after (but thankfully not directly from) a farcical touch judge intervention for a punch by a Glasgow player that turned out to be Al Kellock patting someone on the head.
Leinster’s shape and intent was markedly better in the second half as they found a lot more space through Glasgow’s midfield – Vernon went off soon after looking a little sore – while Glasgow were shuffling Fraser Brown to openside as Strauss left with a blood injury.
A ragged Glasgow’s cause wasn’t helped after Niko Matawalu lashed out with an elbow after Healy hit him with a cheap late tackle then tried to hold him from rejoining the action. Not for the first time his rash streak cost as much as it earns and while Glasgow’s fans will miss him, Glasgow’s title aspirations will perhaps not.
Leinster were now only ten points down, and a quick one-two punch of converted tries from Jordi Murphy then Isaac Boss again suddenly sprang the hosts into the lead and a bonus point; Glasgow were barely clinging on.
Once again a Scottish team were starved of ball and made to tackle solid for the third quarter, a demoralising experience for sure that resulted in a total reversal of the momentum. At least they weren’t kicking it away: most of the turnovers came from knock ons, breakdown steals or the whistle of Mr Owens.
Niko had an armchair ride to spark attacks for Hogg and Seymour; when Pyrgos came on (Niko did not reappear) he looked like Greig Laidlaw, harried and unable to get the cleanliness and pace of ball seen in spades in the first half.
With the wind they may have also had the ref, but Owens saw things less and less Glasgow’s way as the game wore on (does he reward the team with the upper hand?). Even Boss’s squint feeds that would have been picked up in the first half.
Glasgow entered the last 20 minutes mustering as much energy as they could, attacking the Leinster line at 34-27 down. Great forward drives by Johnny Gray – deputy for Al Kellock at this point – and Swinson gave Horne the space to spin it wide to Glenn Bryce to make it over for the try. The conversion wasn’t easy, but Horne (who had an excellent game) had the cool head to kick it and make it 4 tries apiece, and 34 points apiece.
Glasgow had a chance to win it as Seymour (again chasing the interception) got a boot on a loose ball and although he gathered it inside the Leinster 22 was forced to hold on in the face of 3 Leinster players.
With 3 minutes to play, Glasgow managed one last lineout inside their own half to try and get a score.
What followed could be described as some form of extreme torture as both sides left everything in the dirt and grass of the RDS, possession swapping a couple of times as neither side had the strength to break the other, nor the will to concede. Finally, 2 minutes past time, Glasgow won a penalty, but by then it was clear continuing to play and chase a win was risky at best.
The ball went into the stands; honours even.
SRBlog Man of the Match: Hogg was excellent (for a half), Vernon brilliant for about an hour but Mark Bennett was superb for the whole game in both attack and defence. We all knew he was special in attack but pretty soon – if not already – he’s just going to be special full stop.