FORGET, for a moment, the fine performances of recent months. Set aside the substandard show against Saracens. Glasgow’s season will be defined by what happens at Scotstoun tonight (Friday) against Ulster – and, should they win this PRO14 semi-final, by events at Celtic Park in the final itself a week on Saturday.
The Warriors have bounced back impressively from their Champions Cup quarter-final defeat by the eventual winners at the end of March. They have played three games and won three games and scored over 30 points each time. More significantly than the mere results, they have played clinically on the counter-attack, and also shown a new-found solidity in defence, no doubt as a result of having their deficiencies in that aspect of their game cruelly exposed by Saracens.
But in the final analysis, all that will count for nothing if they lose this evening. In that event, this season will, like the last, be seen as one of under-achievement. Then they lost to Scarlets after cruising to a home semi-final. This year they had to fight harder to hold off the challenge of Munster and finish top of Conference A, but while that has been understandably seen as a positive given the form they are now in, the bottom line is that the need to battle all the way to the end of the regular season was caused in large part by some poor performances earlier in the campaign.
In short, there is a lot of pressure on Dave Rennie and his players in this one, especially as Ulster themselves are in similarly good form. Having said that, the head coach himself is convinced that those players are far better placed to deliver than they were at the same stage of the competition this time last season.
“Oh, absolutely,” Rennie said yesterday when asked if he were approaching this match in a notably more confident frame of mind than the 2018 semi-final. “We were confident that we would perform well against Scarlets last year, but we didn’t play well, for a number of reasons, perhaps. We’re in a far better place now, I think, and we want to show that tomorrow night.
“The disappointment against Saracens has been well documented, but outside of that performance over the last two or three months we’ve gone really well. I’ve always said that you want to be playing your best footy at the time when it counts the most.
“As a squad I think we’re in a good place. We’re confident, but we know we have to play well.
“We’ve had a pretty steady group and put a big chunk of this team out week after week over the last month. From a combination point of view I think we’re really solid. At this time of year you want your best players on the field and we have a pretty full complement to pick from.
“We’ve made sure we haven’t overtrained and that we’ve been very sharp. What has helped us from a coaching perspective is that we were having lots of discussions about what our best team was last year because we weren’t playing very well and some individuals weren’t playing very well.”
That tricky second season
It is always far harder to assess how coaches are performing over a short run of games compared to players, but Rennie certainly seems more assured at the helm now, at the end of his second season in charge, than he was at the end of year one. He knows his squad better, has made a few significant tweaks to the line-up such as the introduction at centre of Kyle Steyn, and appears to be on the same wavelength as Adam Hastings to a greater extent than he was with Finn Russell.
“It’s probably not easy to pinpoint,” the coach continued when asked to sum up the mood in his squad compared to a year ago. “We’ve added a little bit of firepower, but I think we’ve just had an extra year together, we’re a little bit older. We’ve got a lot of key players in form. It’s a very happy group, and we’ve got a group of guys who aren’t playing this week who have had a role in helping us prepare for this game. We’ve been having fun and working hard and looking forward to the challenge tomorrow night.
“[Ulster] had a really good season. They were quarter-finalists in Europe. They probably didn’t play very well against us here last time, but then they had really good performances against Edinburgh away and then Leinster.
“So we’re well aware of their threats. [Rory] Best and [Iain] Henderson are in this time, and we’re anticipating it will be a real arm-wrestle. When you get to this stage of the year, it’s just full on for the 80, isn’t it?”
Best, the Ulster hooker and captain, is desperate to end his career on a high, but Warriors full-back Stuart Hogg is no less eager to claim a trophy before he signs off on this stage of his career and heads to Exeter. “He’s been fantastic,” Rennie said of Hogg. “We’ve seen the best of him in the last few weeks, haven’t we?
“We want to get a lot of ball in his hands, even at first receiver on the short side – he’s done that really well in recent weeks. We know he’s got a fantastic kicking game and that’s been important. He’s a real spark, isn’t he? He’s been good. He probably didn’t play an enormous amount of footy for us in my first 18 months here, but he’s just really excited he’s been able to string a lot of games together. He’s playing well, which augurs well for Scotland going into a World Cup.”
Ulster will be the more anxious of the two teams to make it an arm-wrestle, while Glasgow, for all their new-found ability to grind it out in defence, will be happier the more open the game becomes and the more space Hogg finds on the ball. If both teams play to their recent form, the home side should edge it, as they did at the same stage four years ago when they went on to win the PRO12 title, but there is no way Ulster should be written off even if they go a couple of scores down.
Talking about the man in the middle
Whatever happens, you can only hope that the game is decided by the players, and not by an error from the officials. The tournament organisers have left themselves hostages to fortune in that regard by making the wholly avoidable misjudgement of appointing an all-Irish officiating team: referee John Lacey, assistant referees Andrew Brace and George Clancy, and TMO Olly Hodges.
“It’s out of our control,” Rennie said when asked about the appointments. “We’ve just got to make sure that we paint the right pictures and perform at our best. Any questions around that kind of stuff are probably irrelevant.
“In the end, the way it works is that you have a referee and two ARs who are generally guys they work with what and they trust. Hopefully they will chip in with things from the sidelines and between the three of them they make the right decisions. Obviously, it has been decided that John Lacey is No 2 or 3 in the rankings so he gets a semi and the guys he has been working with come with him. We just have to trust that process and get on with it.
“We haven’t even discussed it with our players. John Lacey is very experienced, he’s got good men on the sideline who he trusts, so that should help him. We’ve just got to control what we can control. This is about our performance – there will be no talk about who’s refereeing.”