To have any chance of retaining their PRO12 title Glasgow Warriors will have to make history and beat Connacht away from home in this Saturday’s Semi Final.
Leone Nakarawa of Glasgow runs with the ball during the Guinness PRO12 rugby match between Connacht Rugby and Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground in Galway, Ireland on May 7, 2016 Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
What a difference a decade makes.
At the conclusion of the 2005/6 season Connacht and Glasgow occupied the bottom two spots of the Celtic League with a combined points differential (PD) of -209 points. They were the also rans of the league and, depending on who you spoke to, were deemed development sides at best, lost causes at worst.
[blockquote author=”Connacht Head Coach Pat Lam” pull=”right”]“If you work hard and build a good culture then you can achieve anything”[/blockquote]
Fast forward to today and it’s a total reversal of fortunes. Connacht have been the PRO12 pace setting surprise package, finishing their best ever season in second place with a PD of +101.
Glasgow Warriors have had an even more stratospheric rise making all but one of the last six Play Offs, back to back Finals, winning last season’s title and finishing off this season in third place with a PD of +177.
So it seems somehow poetic that the two former bottom dwellers turned contenders will face off against each other this Saturday at The Sportsground in the second PRO12 Semi Final.
Connacht have the significant advantage of playing at home thanks to their higher finish, a point that Gregor Townsend’s men will be all to aware of considering no side has ever won a Play Off Semi away from home.
So how do the two sides stack up?
[small_title title=”HEAD TO HEAD”]
|17 Wins||8 Wins|
|8 Losses||17 Losses|
|3 Draws||3 Draws|
|635 Points For||508 Points For|
|508 Against||635 Points Against|
In the penultimate round of the regular Guinness PRO12 season Connacht had a demoralising 22-21 defeat away from home to 12th placed Bennetton Treviso, whilst Glasgow Warriors had just beaten Zebre by a club record 70 points to 10 and were on a nine game winning streak.
So it seemed for all the world like the final game against Connacht would be a formality and Glasgow would take the spoils and top spot. However, somebody failed to tell Pat Lam whose side outmatched and outmuscled Glasgow.
Early pressure from the Warriors was resisted and Connacht scored with their first venture into the twenty-two. Glasgow got back into the game with a Gordon Reid try, but also got a red card handed to Sila Puafisi.
The Warriors had a difficult battle ahead. They leaked a try to Connacht and couldn’t get the draw they needed for a home Semi, final score Connacht 14 Glasgow Warriors 7.
One thing Glasgow can take from that performance is heart – they never gave up and pushed Connacht right up until the final whistle. Had the red card not been awarded, we could have been talking about a Scotstoun game this weekend and advantage Warriors.
The loss to Connacht has certainly slowed the Warriors momentum on their charge to the Pro12 Final, so how they respond this weekend is going to be instrumental to whether they win or lose.
[blockquote author=”Gregor Townsend” pull=”none”]“An emotion we feel is determination. Determination to ensure that we work hard and learn from today and play better next time we come here”[/blockquote]
The Warriors are looking to defend their title whilst Connacht, the side Sky Sports regularly claim are the rugby equivalent of Leicester City, look to sign-off their breakthrough season by winning a first ever PRO12 piece of silverware.
[small_title title=”IRISH EYES ARE SMILING”]
Matt Healy, John Muldoon and Bundee Aki of Connacht celebrate after the Guinness PRO12 rugby match between Connacht Rugby and Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground in Galway, Ireland on May 7, 2016 Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
It’s clear the neautral romantics are with the Irishmen, and who can blame them considering Connacht’s Cinderella story and the infinitely more expansive style of rugby they’ve been playing of late. This can be seen in their domination of the PRO12 dream team with seven representatives in the XV.
Then there’s the fact that this is their first ever Semi-Final in the PRO12. It would look for all the world like their stars are aligning, especially with the home advantage odds being stacked way in their favour
So how well equipped are the Warriors to change PRO12 history and win an away Semi?
[small_title title=”CHAMPION SPIRIT”]
Al Kellock of the Glasgow Warriors lifts the Pro 12 trophy after his team’s victory during the Guinness Pro 12 final match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Kingspan Stadium on May 30, 2015 in… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
[blockquote author=”Gregor Townsend” pull=”right”]“I have huge belief in the players and that we can come back with a win”[/blockquote]
In a season heavily disrupted by losing almost two dozen players to the Rugby World Cup and 6 Nations Internationals, Glasgow have really had to make up ground since January when they sat a lowly 8th in the table. Since then they’ve been on a charge to the top, picking up a maximum fifteen points against their Italian rivals on the way.
With the exertions of the season taking their toll, they were bound to be stopped somewhere along the line. However, with a side that has been involved in the Play Offs for the last four years, and became the first Scottish side to win the Pro12 trophy last year, the Glaswegians certainly won’t lack the confidence and the winning experience needed to topple the men from Galway.
Furthermore, Glasgow have been the best PRO12 side away from home this season, with five wins, a draw and eight bonus points coming from their eleven away fixtures.
[small_title title=”KEY PLAYERS”]
Despite having only Leone Nakarawa in the PRO12 dream team of the season, there is no doubting that the Warriors possess an awful lot of fire power, especially in their backline where two of last year’s choices (Peter Horne and Tommy Seymour) are likely to feature.
[small_title title=”Long Johns”]
Jonny Gray and John Muldoon
Connacht’s John Muldoon during the Gloucester Rugby v Connacht Rugby European Champions Cup Play-Off at Kingsholm Stadium on May 24, 2015 in Gloucester, England. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
Two very different players, both big inspirational men. There is no doubt the captains will be key this weekend.
33 year old Muldoon has been with Connacht since 2004 and has seen the club go through a small army’s worth of players, coaches and changes. He will bring his past Challenge Cup success and a can draw on career’s worth of experience -something that will be invaluable to a team for whom winning at the top level is a new sensation.
On the other hand 22 year old Gray has defied his limited years and been one of the stand out performers over the last few seasons. He barely misses a tackle and is rock solid in defence, but is also good at getting the go forward and using his big frame to destructive effect. He seems to have picked up a lot of leadership tips and experience from playing alongside former Glasgow and Scotland captain Al Kellock, meaning the Glasgow captain should be well equipped to make the hard calls.
[small_title title=”The Galway Axis Of Doom”]
Kieran Marmion, Matt Healy and Bundee Aki
These guys have been central to all of Connacht’s success this year, with Marmion often opting for quick snipes, but also providing quick and accurate delivery. Aki has been a revelation in the Connacht centres; huge power, big tackles and great ability to break the line. Finally with Healy topping the Pro12 try scoring charts this season with nine, it goes without saying he’ll need to be closely marked at all times.
[small_title title=”Glaswegian Glamour Boys”]
Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Leone Nakarawa
Warriors fly half Finn Russell in action during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Northampton Saints and Glasgow Warriors at Franklin’s Gardens on January 17, 2016 in Northampton,… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
These are Glasgow’s go-to men. Finn Russell needs to be on form, because when he is, he can be electric. However, with just a 65% success rate kicking success rate this season Glasgow fans will be hoping that, in addition to his flare and vision, he can deliver the basics from the tee.
As Six Nations Player of the Tournament Hogg has shown that he can attack from anywhere on the park and poses a huge threat to any side, especially in broken play. But any team marking him will have to shut him down quickly as he’s shown himself equally adept at creating tries for others, as demonstrated with his masterful tap to Tim Visser in the French game.
Finally, with Nakarawa constantly doing the outrageous (as you can see below), and more often than not pulling it off, he has the potential to single handedly change the outcome of the game. So let’s hope this isn’t last time we see him in the blue and black of Glasgow.
[small_title title=”RECORD BREAKERS?”]
[blockquote author=”Gregor Townsend” pull=”right”]“It would be nice to break the record, we’ll have to do our very best to do that”[/blockquote]
Glasgow Warriors are used to breaking records. Thanks to Duncan Weir they hold the most successful number of conversions for a game (10), have broken their season ticket records for the past two years running and, of course, became the first ever Scottish Champions in PRO12 history.
Most of the famous pundits are keeping tight lipped in the leadup to this ‘too close to call’ clash, but the bookies have put their cash monies where their mouths are.
At present Paddy Power has Glasgow Warriors on as 2/1 Champions and Connacht as 2/13.
But as we all know the bookies can’t predict the future, so with that in mind we asked the folks of Twitter what they thought with a couple of polls.
— Scotland Rugby News (@ScotRugbyNews) May 16, 2016
The first is overwhelmingly in favour of Glasgow winning this weekend’s game with 90% of voters saying they can make history.
The second asked whether they can regain the title.
Out of 498 votes an overwhelming 56% voted for the Warriors. Of the three Irish sides, Connacht were the most likely with 17% of the vote. It seems for many people the winner of this Semi Final will decide the winner of the Pro12 trophy on May 28th.
[small_title title=”WILL THEY WIN?”]
Despite the loss of Alex Dunbar to injury, Glasgow possess the fire-power and the knowledge to make yet another piece of PRO12 history en-route to a third successive Final. Plus, with this being the first PRO12 Final staged in Edinburgh, in front of what in expected to be a record breaking crowd, the Weegies won’t be short of incentive to rewrite history.
Just be sure of one thing, Connacht have their own history to write and won’t give up on their dream easily.