In the blustery sunshine of Scotstoun, Glasgow took on Ulster in front of a sellout crowd with a Guinness PRO12 home semi-final at stake. The gusty wind had an influence from the kickoff as Ian Humphries undercooked the kickoff, which allowed the Glasgow scrum an early chance at a penalty.
The ensuing lineout drive was bullied into touch by the Ulster pack, and further ineffectual phases of attack followed before referee Ian Davies whistled them back to allow Finn Russell a simple shot at goal.
The wind seemed to affect Glasgow’s handling too – there were plenty of knock ons – but at least the relatively dry conditions allowed a return to the attacking style so absent against the Ospreys last weekend.
Defensively they dealt with Ulster’s first foray into the 22 with confidence but clearance box kicks were a risk in the wind for both sides; goal kicking was a bit of a luxury. It was physical stuff though with both sides making blood and full substitutions in the first half hour. Paul Marshall was living up to his name and keeping the game pinned in the last third of the pitch and only forward passes (well refereed by the home fans) were stopping them from scoring.
It served very well to keep Glasgow well away from scoring themselves though, and the worry was that all the near misses would stick eventually, especially as Louis Ludik only just butchered an easy 2 on 1.
In the face of the pressure, Davies’ patience ran thin and Jonny Gray was binned for persistent offsides.
And then the rain came.
With a brief but horizontal shower flowing from behind them, Ulster made their extra man count and the visiting fans cheered the try as the rain lashed in their faces.
When the sun reappeared, Glasgow battled hard to get into Ulster’s half and were rewarded with a shot at goal. Retaining possession they made ground in the midfield channels; but the conditions and an inability to hold on to the ball gave Ulster an opportunity to strike straight back, Humphries finally having mastered the conditions.
HT Glasgow 6-10 Ulster
News from other fixtures around the league meant that Glasgow needed 4 tries with the wind at their backs to snatch a home semi-final and avoid a trip to Thomond Park.
Ulster had the better start, again keeping Glasgow locked in their own half. Finn Russell and Chris Fusaro did well to hold up their man and win a turnover but for every one of those there was a knock on or Ulster piling on the pressure at the breakdown, some of it only marginally legal. It was 9 or 10 man rugby but it was keeping Glasgow shackled and Ulster seemed in control, especially as Glasgow made ineffectual use of those gifts that were offered by the referee.
Then, with 30 minutes to go, Townsend emptied the bench and everything changed.
The major change was Henry Pyrgos in at 9 with Niko moving to the wing (where he is most effective in tight games). But it was on the other wing that saw the first moment of magic, Stuart Hogg chipping then outstripping his marker to regather the ball and dive over from what seemed like a superhuman distance. He was flying.
Glasgow took the lead and the new front row asserted themselves with another penalty. Russell boomed the kick deep into Ulster territory and another attacking platform. Brilliant solo try of the day #2 came from Russell, who slipped past the shoulders of the Ulster midfield then showed surprising power to batter past 2 more defenders to cross the line, before kicking the conversion too.
Ulster fans may have felt aggrieved as first Richie Vernon wasn’t sin binned for a physical but mostly legal tackle while Ulster prop Andrew Warwick was, for a breakdown offence.
Glasgow, with that wind now filling their sails, went on the charge down the wing. Hogg mistimed an overlap in a similar spot to Ludik’s in the first half, but Seymour made the best of it, fighting for every yard, and managed to get Jonny Gray close enough to be held up over the line.
Glasgow regathered for a scrum and luckily didn’t push their luck, after one previous reset, the next penalty saw Pyrgos tap and go, neat passing through a maze of dummy runners picking our Russell who carved over for his second converted try.
With ten minutes left and one more try needed, the now audibly exultant Scotstoun crowd didn’t have to wait long for Richie Vernon to batter through the Ulster line (as he has done all season when called upon) and hit the gas to dive over unopposed and secure the bonus point.
As the driving rain returned to compound Ulster’s misery – most of their fans were sat in the teeth of it, and many could not be blamed for heading to the exits a few moments early – Glasgow were in no mood to let the weather spoil their party. With Weir and Murchie on to shut up shop, the home semi final beckoned until the whistle confirmed it.
If nothing else, when Glasgow play attacking rugby, the sun truly shines on them. Next up they will face Ulster – again – this Friday, at the same venue, and hopefully with the same crowd that Al Kellock paid tribute to after the game. He talked of their consistent aim to go one better each time, to always improve.
This time they have topped the table at the end of the regular season, and the playoffs await.
SRBlog Man of the Match: Vernon and Strauss both had good games, while Hogg and Seymour had moments of excellence as did Jonny Gray despite his binning. But Finn Russell scored 22 of the 32 points, and after a shaky start had a massive influence on the second half.