Playoff memories: Home semi-final number 2 – Ulster, 22nd May 2015

The 2014/15 PRO12 playoff semi-final hadn’t really gone the way of Glasgow Warriors as the match entered its closing stages. There had been moments when they’d threatened to break through but by and large the home side’s main attacking threats had been kept quiet by a stifling Ulster defence and some moments of imprecision at their own hands.

It was beginning to seem like there would be no repeat of the unconfined joy that engulfed the stadium the previous week when, firstly, the home playoff tie had been secured and, secondly, the news had filtered through that Glasgow had in fact finished top of the league table. However with time running out and the crowd urging the team on, an attacking passage of play lasting 99 seconds and encompassing 15 phases would turn the game on its head.

1. Pat MacArthur –> Gordon Reid

It starts with a lineout 7 metres inside the Ulster 22. It’s the 16th of the night for Glasgow – and the previous 15 have been a real mixed bag. Tighthead prop Rossouw de Klerk has more lineout takes than any other starter after having to clear up overthrows and missed catches.

With the noise around the stadium starting to build and Ulster expecting a take and drive Pat MacArthur catches them napping, throwing short to Gordon Reid. The Scotstoun Express does what he does best, rumbling forwards to within 10 metres of the tryline.

2. Henry Pyrgos –> Jonny Gray

Immediately Glasgow are into their red zone patterns with their primary ball carriers taking up positions to lead the charge. Jonny Gray has the first hit, tying in defenders and recycling the ball quickly.

This is just the first of six carries that the Warriors’ lock duo of Jonny and Leone Nakarawa will combine for in this movement. It’s an odd couple pairing in some ways – two young men born almost 10,000 miles apart. Where else but on the rugby pitch would this pair even have met, let alone formed such an effective partnership? What both have in common though is the sort of mental strength that drives them forward through overwhelming pressure

3. Henry Pyrgos –> Leone Nakarawa

It’s Leone’s turn now and it’s he who provides the next moment of inspiration. There’s no hint of his usual offloading game now, it’s all about pure power as the big second row drives through an attempted tackle to put Glasgow on the front foot deep in the Ulster 22. Black and blue jerseys pour through smashing into the ruck, making sure the Warriors are winning the collisions and ensuring there’s no danger of the flying Fijian getting isolated.

4. Henry Pyrgos –> Finn Russell –> Niko Matawalu –> Richie Vernon

Emboldened by the ground gained and quick ball, Glasgow’s decision makers try to probe a little wider. This is not yet the time though – Josh Strauss’ short line doesn’t check the rush defence and Niko Matawalu barely evades a tackle way behind the gainline. What comes next is the type of play only the mercurial Fijiweegie would try at such a crucial moment – with the full back flying in to wrap him up Niko pulls off a round the back flip pass.

As Richie Vernon plucks it out of the air he must be caught in that head-space only one of Matawalu’s teammates can occupy, a finely crafted balance between “Niko, ya eejit!” and “Niko, ya genius!” (geejit?)  It comes off on this occasion and RV takes the ball over the Ulster five metre line for the first time.

5. Henry Pyrgos –> Niko Matawalu

The wee Fijian has bounced back to his feet and is immediately involved again as Henry cuts out his big ball carriers and looks to take advantage of the chaos created by RV’s burst. Niko shows his power again, sitting down Rory Best in the tackle and giving his forwards a target to drive over.

The play is pressing towards Scotstoun’s West stand, drawing inexorably closer to the Ulster line and compressing the defence as the Irish side’s forwards collapse backwards while their backline step up to form a thin white line, safe in the knowledge there is precious little room behind them to exploit. Any Glasgow score is almost certain to have to break down the defensive bulwark the hard way.

6. Henry Pyrgos –> Leone Nakarawa

Another cut-out pass, another Fijiweegie. This time though Leone is well wrapped up in a double tackle. With help from Ryan Wilson and Mike Cusack it’s another clinical ruck for Glasgow and Henry Pyrgos and Finn Russell take the chance to organise their troops for the next series of plays.

7. Henry Pyrgos –> DTH van der Merwe

There are bigger interventions to come for Canada’s finest but at this moment it’s all about doing the grunt work for DTH van der Merwe as he gets his head down to blast into contact.

Having missed the last 3 games of the regular season with a wrist injury the club’s record try scorer has been sprung from the bench in the knowledge that this could be his final game for Glasgow before moving on to the Scarlets – unless someone does something about that 5 point deficit on the scoreboard. Maybe give it another 50 seconds or so…

8. Henry Pyrgos –> Ryan Wilson –> Leone Nakarawa

Glasgow are looking now to Leone. He is the dominant figure in this huge effort and the big man is setting the tone, driving through tackles, putting his side on the front foot and allowing the Warriors to control this passage of play, to keep probing and testing the Ulster defence.

9. Henry Pyrgos –> Josh Strauss

The play is sweeping left with player after player working hard to get round and into position to clear the ensuing ruck or provide the next option. Ulster cannot get near the ball and are just trying to clear the contact area in order to make the next tackle, the next hit, all the while hoping against hope that Glasgow will make a mistake.

Stand-in skipper Josh Strauss is leading by example. As he crashes face first through another tackle the burly South African (who at this stage of the season is at the absolute peak of his beard game) sets the ball up absolutely perfectly for his scrum half. These little touches are crucial in allowing Glasgow to maintain the pressure on Ulster and prevent the defence from getting set.

10. Henry Pyrgos –> Sean Lamont

It’s time for the oldest man on the pitch to get involved and Sean carries the ball in as hard as any forward, sending Darren Cave flying and setting the ball back ready for the next phase to begin.

The ball has now passed through 12 pairs of hands for Glasgow with Mike Cusack, Adam Ashe and Stuart Hogg the only players not directly involved. They’ve not been idle though with both Adam and Mike prominent in the efforts to clear rucks and protect possession. Even Hoggy has been joining in at the breakdown, but for the most part he’s constantly been switching from side to side scanning the defence, waiting for the moment he can help the backline strike.

11. Henry Pyrgos –> Ryan Wilson

Henry takes the ball a couple of steps for the first time in the movement, giving himself a split second to see how the defensive line is reacting (but also taking his main runners by surprise as they head in the opposite direction). With Ulster up off the line quickly his outlet is Ryan Wilson who does his best to head back towards the rest of the pack. It still takes a bit of Finn ‘The Muscle’ Russell clear out action to keep the ball alive this time but now Henry has a mass of big carriers on his left side to use.

12. Henry Pyrgos –> Jonny Gray

Jonny angles his run, trying to get round the Ulster forwards and drive straight through the backs. He’s held by the ankles but the first significant signs of stress are showing in the defence with Tommy Bowe desperately signalling for more numbers on a short side that is quickly being flooded by black shirts.

13. Henry Pyrgos –> Sean Lamont

Glasgow’s auxiliary forward is there again and with men on either shoulder he can drive into contact knowing the clearout will be coming. He uses his body to protect the ball extremely well though, rolling around the corner and placing it back ideally for Henry. Glasgow now have dragged 10 Ulstermen into the space 5 metres either side of the breakdown.

14. Henry Pyrgos –> Leone Nakarawa

With all those white shirts so close to the last ruck there are plenty of tacklers to move up and stop Leone this time. Finn Russell is lurking just behind his forwards though and the moment is coming. Still the Fijian lock makes ground through the tackle, forcing the whole defensive line to take several steps back. There’s a dawning realisation of what may be on and Jared Payne races round the ruck to try and fill a huge hole that has appeared. As he moves towards the contact area Henry is looking over to his stand off – now is the time.

An almost irresistible pressure is building. The crowd and players are feeding off each other as the noise inside the stadium reaches a crescendo. It’s a moment that can only end in joy or despair.

15. Henry Pyrgos –> Finn Russell –> DTH van der Merwe

With Ulster having been dragged so far over to the Main Stand side of the pitch Glasgow are numbers up on the right flank. An exhausted Lewis Stevenson can’t cover across to close a yawning gap to his teammate Payne, meaning the Ulster defenders have to hold and wait for Finn to make his decision whether to run or pass.

With Louis Ludik moving into the Glasgow 10’s eyeline for the short pass to Niko, Finn floats one twenty metres off his left hand, perfectly weighted for the arch predator DTH van der Merwe to charge onto without breaking stride. The noise peaks as soon as the ball is in the Canadian winger’s hands, the Warriors’ players arms are aloft – they know DTH has got this. It’s what he does so well and on his farewell outing at Scotstoun who could possibly deny a man who’s been through so much with the club one last perfect moment?

Finn Russell

For all that rugby is a team game, there are still occasions when the individual stands apart. There is nothing anyone else can do to help Finn now as he stands over possibly the most important kick of his short career. Many around the ground are still out of their seats from the try being scored. Thoughts have been turning to extra time – seemingly a good outcome after being behind for 48 minutes. How does it work? How long will it last? Ulster have still to use most of their bench, whereas Glasgow have emptied theirs – do we have the stamina to stay the course?

And then attention turns to Finn. In amongst all the noise, the excitement and the distractions he is calmness personified. It’s writ large on his face as it flashes up on the big screens – for him there is no crowd there, no game situation to worry about, no pressure bearing down on him. This is a routine he’s been through many times before and he runs through it again just as if he were out there all alone at the end of training.

As the ball sets off from Finn’s boot it moves slightly in the air before straightening up – and suddenly it’s dropping right between the uprights. Cue bedlam. The noise is all the greater this time as fans are released from the artificial silence they’ve had to maintain through the conversion. It starts with those in the West and North stands who are in line with the kick, quickly spreading like some joyful virus throughout Scotstoun as the belief flows through the crowd. We are Warriors and we will not be denied.

 

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