Guinness PRO12: Glasgow Warriors canter to maiden title
Four-try salute sees Al Kellock walk away from professional rugby with silverware after a dominant win over Munster
Most predictions expected a close contest between the two best clubs in this season’s Guinness PRO12. Previous results backed that up, form also suggested it could go either way. It was far from it as the Warriors ran away with a 31-13 victory in Belfast.
No fairytale end to a decorated Munster career for Paul O’Connell as opposite number Al Kellock walked away from his final game as a professional player with a trophy drenched in champagne and Guinness after a brief cameo appearance; a fitting finale for a player who has been with the club throughout their development from Celtic League also-rans to PRO12 champions.
After last year’s failure in Dublin, there was a feeling in the days before that the Scots may not get a better chance to win the PRO12 for some time.
That is something not lost on Gregor Townsend and his sizable squad, which will be ripely harvested for the Scotland squad for the Rugby World Cup in September and October, with many Scottish fans forgiven for already dreaming of a fruitful campaign so soon after their abysmal RBS 6 Nations whitewash.
Next season may be a struggle for the Warriors, but they have grown accustomed to the regularity with which they have been forced to bring in academy players or those on short-term deals just to get by, highlighted again this season with 52 players turning out in black and blue, a similar number the season before. Rarely have they failed to deliver.
Munster may have had more supporters in Belfast to say goodbye to talisman O’Connell and a number of other departing players, but it was undoubtedly the Warriors who had more heart and desire, and used it to their advantage with aplomb
It took them just seven pulsating minutes to get the scoreboard moving when Rob Harley crashed over the line from a trademark Nakarawa offload after the Fijian lock had monstered the Munster backs. Russell adding the conversion to get the party started.
Nakarawa, who would be named man of the match, continued his storming start to the game by sending away the Warriors’ record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe for a superb second score, what would be his last for the club before he joins the Scarlets this summer, and from there Munster were chasing with all the grace of a sumo wrestler trying to catch Usain Bolt.
A third try. Allowing full-back Stuart Hogg the chance to motor forward is never a good idea, as Munster found to their detriment as he sent scrum-half Henry Pyrgos through the Munster defence and under the posts. If ever there was belief that the Warriors would win the title it was now: 21-3 up and still plenty of time before half-time.
Munster rallied, as they so often do. Trademark set-piece play their only real weapon in attack, so often blighted by a combination of their woeful inaccuracy and unrelenting opposition defence.
After a clearance was charged down, centre Andrew Smith – by far their best player on the night – just managed to ground the ball on the line three minutes before half-time after almost 30 phases. Keatley converted. How very Munster.
One try back and the deficit reduced to 11 points, there was a glimmer of hope for the Red Army in the second half when they got the first score early. Not a try, but a Keatley penalty. The lead down to eight. Whether they should have gone to the corner and had another go at the Warriors defence coughing up penalties is a moot point. At this stage, they were back in the game. They couldn’t, could they?
Alas, nay. Warriors outside-half Finn Russell cut a superb angle to go over for a fourth, duly converted. Four tries with the final quarter to come and no sign of Kellock – or Ulster’s current favourite villain Niko Matawalu – from the bench.
Eventually their time came with the game all but won. Somewhat inevitably, Matawalu, emerged to a crescendo of boos from the healthy dose of locals still upset at his theatrics in the semi-final, but there was plenty of love all round for Kellock, the Warriors captain; a club stalwart on for a cameo to help his club make history.
When replacement outside-half Duncan Weir slotted over a late penalty for the Warriors, it was confirmed: there was to be no way back for Anthony Foley and his Munstermen. Not this year. Quite rightly, the day belonged to Glasgow Warriors and as the celebrations started with gusto in the stands the heavens above south Belfast opened further to soak players and supporters, so often the weather Townsend’s men are accustomed to in the west of Scotland.
Having topped the table after 22 rounds of the regular season and dragged themselves over the line from behind against Ulster in the semi-final, the Warriors were deserving winners of the PRO12 title. It wasn’t the most commanding title success the league has seen, but it was certainly one of the most entertaining.