With Glasgow and Connacht the standard bearers for fast attacking rugby in the Pro12 this season, this crunch final game of the season promised much until the Galway conditions made the surface and the ball damper than both sides would have liked.
It started at typical high pace, Leone Nakarawa popping through the ruck to set Glasgow up in attack before referee Ian Davies awarded the first penalty. Kicking into the blustery wind, Russell missed it (10 from 10 last week Duncan Weir wasn’t even in the squad) but his instinctive chip kick moments before had indicated that he wasn’t going to let the weather stop him playing his game.
Sadly that couldn’t be said of Gordon Reid, who – after the Warriors broke deep into the Connacht half, again through Nakarawa – dropped Russell’s inside ball with the line open in front of him. Slippery ball aside, Glasgow’s chief problem at that point was over-eager runners clattering into their own team mates; it looked like Alex Dunbar took a bump from behind that resulted in him hobbling off on just 14 minutes.
The new back three of Hogg, Seymour and Jones were looking for counter-attacks and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Hogg was penalised for holding on after running up a blind alley, and when the home side didn’t want to kick even with the win, it suggested the kicking-tee bearers would have an easy afternoon. Instead the men in green kicked to the corner, drove it for a bit until Nakarawa hauled it down and then the ball spun right to Bundee Aki who had too much power to be held out. This time there was a successful kick and it was 7-0.
Earlier in the season Glasgow were given a torrid time in the front row but Connacht were without several key men and Glasgow had something approaching parity, earning another penalty on 21 minutes which Russell also missed.
Ali Price was marshalling his side well in the absence of Henry Pyrgos, and there was definite profit to be found close in to the rucks where Russell and Horne found plenty of half gaps but the Connacht defence was working very quickly and the first half was far from the easy ride the first 5 minutes might have suggested to Glasgow.
With conditions against them, Connacht managed their half cannily, upping the intensity only when they needed to and piling the pressure on once a score was a genuine possibility, mainly through the hard running of Aki. The half hour mark saw their scrum camped near the Glasgow line but the Warriors repelled them twice. Connacht still turned them over inside their own half and came back on the charge before a spill by Niyi Adeolokun and Hogg’s boot put Glasgow on the front foot for the first time in what seemed like an age.
The key thing as half time approached and the game moved back to the Connacht half: Connacht hadn’t scored again, but even in defence Connacht felt like the side in control, their line speed pushing Glasgow back at every turn even if their work at the breakdown might have merited closer inspection from refereen Davies.
With a change in wind to come and a draw the minimum required for a home semi, Glasgow could in theory have been satisfied – but they would not have been happy.
HT: Connacht 7-0 Glasgow
Glasgow came out attacking with Horne, Russell and Leone as usual the men attempting to inject pace into the line, but the game remained a guddle on the deck.
Gordon Reid showed what he does better than catching pop passes in the midfield with a quick pick and go from the base that gave Glasgow their opening try. It was set up by a series of lineout drives, Fraser Brown having a strong game at hooker with a secure lineout and some big carries.
Russell kicked it this time with the wind behind – although no less challenging – to equalise and put Glasgow in position for that home semi.
Unfortunately there were still 32 minutes to play and Sila Puafisi didn’t make the job any easier with a brainless clearout using his head that gave the referee no choice but to red card him, when ironically Glasgow were due a penalty in any case.
Suddenly the draw looked promising, never mind the win.
Momentum firmly with Connacht, Glasgow were had to chase the game despite parity on the scoreboard. Every little mistake by Glasgow increased the volume of the home crowd, making it even more of an uphill struggle.
Connacht looked like they had run out of props on 55 minutes and with Sean Lamont packing down in the scrum, a move to uncontested scrums was a potential lifeline for Glasgow if he could be put back on the wing. Sadly they found one, and shunted Glasgow about near their own posts until Russell could clear. The brainlessness continued though as Jonny Gray was penalised for blocking a Connacht runner to protect Russell, keeping the ball in Irish hands and in the Glasgow 22.
Sure enough, Connacht got the try they arguably deserved with Tiernan O’Halloran plucking the ball from above Stuart Hogg in the in-goal area. In the wind they got the luck on a risky cross-field kick, while every decent Glasgow break ended in a knock-on.
It was 14-7 entering the last quarter of the game. Glasgow were looking tired and the home semi was drifting out of sight, but still Glasgow carried it forward. Russell often found space to work in but Connacht were very alert to Pete Horne’s threat and he was well shackled. Bennett unfortunately again was very quiet despite the opportunity afforded by Dunbar’s injury until the last ten minutes when he sprung into life.
It was telling that Glasgow’s first real territory in the second half came with 11 minutes to play, and even then MacArthur was not as assured in the lineout as Brown had been and the ball was turned over.
It was one of those days where nothing came off – witness Pete Horne’s dribbled pass to no-one – and no matter how good Glasgow were on paper, on the day there were too many mistakes and Connacht were too focused to let them coast into the semis on talent alone.
Grayson Hart, the only player long enough on the bench to inject any pace into tiring Warriors, took a quick tap on half way to give Bennett and Hogg some attacking positions to work with but Connacht’s defence was tireless and the move that almost the entire Glasgow team was involved in ended in a spillage. Again.
Frustrations spilled over with some handbags that merely served to waste time Glasgow didn’t have, and by the time Davies whistled for a penalty for the home team at the next passage of play, Glasgow had to refocus their minds on a rematch in two weeks time. So, the farewell last week was the Scotstoun farewell for a lot of those Glasgow players after all. Next up is the same team, same venue.
SRBlog Man of the Match: a very difficult afternoon for Glasgow, with Finn Russell probably the pick of the quiet backs just for making the fewest mistakes – and he still had a few. For me Fraser Brown was the standout in the pack, carrying hard, secure at the set piece. He should get the start again in two weeks.
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU)
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; AJ MacGinty, Kieran Marmion; Ronan Loughney, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham; Ultan Dillane, Aly Muldowney; Sean O’Brien, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Rodney Ah You, Quinn Roux, Eoin McKeon, John Cooney, Shane O’Leary, Peter Robb.
Glasgow Warriors: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, Lee Jones, Finn Russell, Ali Price, Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown, Sila Puafisi, Leone Nakarawa, Jonny Gray (Captain), Rob Harley, Ryan Wilson, Josh Strauss.
Replacements: Pat MacArthur, Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Zander Fagerson, Tim Swinson, Simone Favaro, Grayson Hart, Mark Bennett, Sean Lamont.