THE sun set on Glasgow Warriors’ season in pretty frustrating style at Celtic Park on Saturday evening, when a combination of Leinster’s pressure/power game and the treacherous weather conditions combined to prevent Dave Rennie’s men from controlling the ball for long enough spells to crack one of Europe’s top teams in a match which really mattered.
Rennie expressed his disappointment afterwards that his team had not delivered the sort of performance he believes they are capable of, but there is a very big difference between being sharp and clinical against sides like Ulster (as Warriors were last week), and being able to cut through a team with the experience and unrelenting physicality of Leinster.
There was no shame in what happened here. It was big-time rugby, and Glasgow showed they belonged – but they are not at Leinster’s level.
For talismanic full-back Stuart Hogg, the lights went out 15 minutes earlier than he was hoping, when a reckless and dangerous challenge from opposite number Rob Kearney – which earned the Irishman a yellow card when a red one could and a probably should have been the sanction – meant he had to be replaced.
“He’s concussed so he doesn’t really know what’s going on, but he’s disappointed like everyone – it was pretty quiet in the changing room afterwards,” reported Rennie.
It will be a blessing for Hogg if that moment in the first half when his sloppy, charged-down clearance, which sacrificed Warriors’ early lead, is not among the match memories which return as his scrambled brain settles back into place.
That moment was a far more significant contributor to the outcome of this game than the much later flashpoint which brought to an end his involvement.
Changing of the guard
It was a sad conclusion to Hogg’s wonderful nine-year Glasgow career, but he’ll rise again, and the time is right for him to challenge himself with a new adventure in the English Premiership. As for Warriors, and their supporters, there must be an acceptance that this is the nature of the modern professional game.
“We often talk about Finn Russell leaving [last year] and now Hoggy leaving [this year], but those guys get to a level where we just can’t afford to keep them,” mused Rennie. “And we can’t afford to replace a Stuart Hogg with a Stuart Hogg because that’s why he is going to Exeter – he’s getting double what we pay him.
“So, you’ve either got to develop kids, or you spend a bit of money on somebody who is maybe not as good but has the potential.
“But, ultimately, X-amount of years back, someone gave Hoggy a crack as a kid and someone gave Finn a crack as a kid, and they are now where they are. So, it is the same mind-set around guys like Adam Hastings and so on.
“There will be a good young full-back who may or may not get a crack next year. We may need to bring someone in to fill a hole for a season until one of those young guys comes through – but we can’t compete with the big teams from a financial point of view, so we’ve got to unearth rough diamonds and give them opportunities to bring them through a bit quicker.”
It is slightly different this time because, while Hastings was the heir apparent when Russell headed off to Paris last summer having been recruited from Bath for precisely that role, it is not quite so clear how the giant gap left by Hogg’s departure is going to be filled.
Tommy Seymour shifted infield from the wing after the great man’s injury on Saturday, while Ruaridh Jackson has been a dependable deputy during the international windows these last two seasons. However, at 30 and 31 years of age, respectively, neither of those individuals are positioned to be long-term incumbents in the No 15 jersey.
Ollie Smith and Rufus McLean, who played at full-back for Scotland Under-20s in the opening two games of this season’s Six Nations, will be aligned to Glasgow via the SRU Academy programme next season, so could fit the bill as longer-term options. Matt Davidson, who played the final three games of that campaign at full-back and is currently at London Scottish, could also come into the frame.
Smith and Davidson are currently at a training camp in the USA with the Under-20s, and will play in a training match with SRU partnership club Old Glory DC tomorrow night, as they prepare for the start of the Junior World Cup on 4th June. McLean is injured.
“We’ve got to tweak, we’ve got to add a little bit which is going to maybe give us a different edge to our game, and we’ve done a fair bit of contracting already which we’ll announce in the coming weeks,” Rennie added. “But, really, we think we’ve got the nucleus of a good side. We’ve got some good young men who are going to play for Glasgow for a number of years.”
The importance of strength in depth
If ever there is a good time to lose a player of the calibre of Hogg, it is during a World Cup year when access to international players is even more restricted than it is during a regular season.
Indeed, with 17 players in Gregor Townsend’s 41-man World Cup training squad (plus Kyle Steyn and Scott Cummings in with a great chance of being added to that number), the selection challenges facing Rennie at the start of next season will by no means be limited to full-back.
For example, if the ankle injury sustained by Fraser Brown at the weekend ends up being long-term, then Grant Stewart would be right in the frame to end up on the plane to Japan, which would leave Warriors desperately short of hookers now that Kevin Bryce has hung up his professional boots and Robbie Smith has moved to Bedford Blues. On that basis, we should expect at least one of the new signings due to be announced in the next few weeks.
Having said all that, the coach believes his squad is going to be in pretty good shape generally to deal with any eventuality.
“We’ll have a big chunk away with Scotland [at the start of next season], and we’ve got four other guys who we think will go away with other international teams, but we’re still going to have a pretty good side left here,” he insisted. “We’ve created real depth as we saw earlier this season when we scored the most points during the international windows than any other team in the competition.
“We’ve got a lot of Scotland 7s squad boys, six of them are going to train with us. Plus, we’ve got a lot of our tier three academy boys and some of them will play for us next year. The fact that we’ve blooded a number of young fellas this year is going to help us.
“There’s no doubt that our depth will be tested early – especially if we get a couple of injuries, or if Scotland get any injuries in their preparation and they look to us to fill the hole – but we’ll work hard in pre-season and make sure we’re ready to go.”