Ulster’s Kingspan stadium in Belfast was the “neutral” venue for the Guinness PRO12 final but the stands had a distinctly red tinge – possibly aided by the odd Ulsterman – as Paul O’ Connell took to the field for the last time in Munster colours.
Glasgow were far from on fire in the opening five minutes but they gained ground steadily when they had the ball, tackled strongly when they didn’t and looked nowhere near as cagey as in previous final appearances.
They had their first scoring chance after seven minutes, prevented by a last gasp Denis Hurley tap tackle on DTH Van der Merwe who was absolutely flying for the tryline with only Ian Keatley left to beat.
But they weren’t to be denied as Leone Nakarawa – who just refuses to go to deck until he can offload the ball – found Rob Harley who battered through two defenders to score under the posts, Russell converting. The roar of the crowd showed just how many of the Warrior Nation had travelled over the sea for this game, and they were delighted to see Glasgow continuing with confidence as the backline attacked from everywhere.
The offloading game was paying off, but they’d need scores as there was always the threat of Munster waking up and finding some way to shut Glasgow down, or a rash mistake such as the Finn Russell clearance kick that was charged down and almost led to a Zebo try.
As expected, Munster edged it in the scrums early on with a kickable penalty on 23mins that Keatley slotted to the relief of the Red Army, having missed one earlier.
That man Nakarawa – who was having one of those spells where no-one knows how to stop him – created his second try of the night in what is now typical fashion, with battering carries from Gray and Strauss setting the Fijian up with just a little bit of space enough to set DTH loose. He flirted outrageously with the touchline but this time was not to be denied. Sensibly he ran under the posts and that meant 3-14.
Munster had been near-starved of possession but Glasgow were not finished yet, with excellent build up play from a turnover finding Stuart Hogg up against a front-rower who he promptly skinned and could have passed either side to Seymour or Pyrgos, in the end choosing Pyrgos who had an easy run in for the third try.
Munster finally came back with some ball led by sniping runs from Duncan Williams and again they were inches from a score as the men in red threw everything they had at the line not to win the game, but merely to stay in it. Munster spun it wide, and Andrew Smith managed to roll the ball over the line. The TMO took a fair while to adjudicate but it was rightly awarded and gave Munster a vital boost before half time as the rain appeared.
Our Glasgow, the real Glasgow, had been mostly absent from the last two games but still found a way through. Now they had showed up and played probably the best rugby of their season, could they hold on?
Half-time: Munster 10-21 Glasgow
If Munster needed anything in the second half, it was always going to be a reversion to type as the conditions grew damper. Some nice rolling mauls and dominance in the scrums gave them a roadmap, but they just couldn’t keep the ball and Glasgow’s tails were still up – despite failing to deal with the wind behind them sending a few kicks dead.
O’Connell came close but excellent positioning from Pyrgos and DTH held Munster to a scrum. It was slippery underfoot and Munster were able to earn a penalty. Luckily for the Glasgow front row (and fans of attacking rugby) Munster chose not to try and eke out a penalty try and took the 3 points instead.
They were sneaking back.
Glasgow were still looking to attack whenever possible and Finn Russell made a great break to pin Munster in their own half but the game was a noticeably more even contest, as evidenced by the increase in noise from the Munster fans. Keith Earls and Simon Zebo were lively and as you’d expect from the great man, Paul O’Connell was leading by example.
With discipline near impeccable from both sides, Nigel Owens had very little to do and the game proceeded at a rattling pace.
But Glasgow were clinically (yes, I wrote that about a Scottish team) taking points whenever they had the chance and Finn Russell made life just a little easier for Glasgow fans when after a series of big carries from Richie Vernon, Pyrgos switched play and the standoff found the line in front of him and an easy gap to run through for the fourth try.
Leone Nakarawa put in a phenomenal shift but had to give away to Al Kellock eventually. The big man had a great lineout steal as his first act on the pitch. Paul O’ who?
Glasgow had done many things on a knife-edge, many things insensibly this season, but Duncan Weir kicking the penalty to make it 13-31 with 7 minutes to play was the most sensible, taking the score out to 13-31 and allowing the Warriors the relative luxury of seeing out the last few minutes in a very Munster-like fashion.
It all ended with Owens whistling up a penalty as a Glasgow player was tackled through the back of the ruck by and Irish player. Like Scottish league wins, something you rarely see.
The greatest compliment you could pay to Glasgow was that when the whistle was blown to crown them Guinness PRO12 Champions for the first time and seal the greatest result for Scottish Rugby since the Five Nations in 1999 was this: that it was utterly deserved, it was utterly convincing and it by the end of a wonderful season, it was utterly unsurprising.