'Rugby brings everyone together, as cheesy as it sounds. It's got nothing to do with any of the bigoted nonsense that goes on'
Jon Welsh is talking about Glasgow’s finest hour, the Belfast savaging of Munster four years ago that won them a first PRO12 title and meant so many club giants bowed out as champions.
Gregor Townsend’s men were irrepressible that day, a golden farewell for Shade Munro, Al Kellock, Dougie Hall, DTH van der Merwe, Niko Matawalu, Sean Maitland and prop Welsh himself, who had signed for Newcastle. They played as though ordained for greatness. It was Glasgow’s coronation and they went after their destiny like a pack of hyenas.
But before we get to the tries and the euphoria and the parades, a reminder of where this club’s rise began. In 2008, Welsh’s debut season as a professional, Glasgow finished seventh in the old 10-team Celtic League. A quite magnificent win in Toulouse aside, it was a forgettable campaign.
The players would do their weights in one part of the city, their rugby training in another, and play matches at another still. Getting any more than 2,500 people through the gates at Firhill was decent going.
“We were a team that thought, let’s just see what we can get from games,” says Welsh. “If we got anything from the top teams – Munster, Leinster, Ospreys – then great. Your weights would be at one place, you’d train at Whitecraigs, there were portakabins for the coaches’ offices, we’d play matches at Firhill – we were all over the place.
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“The year we won the title, if we lost a game it was like, crap. You didn’t expect to lose. That’s a culture thing – people did not expect to lose at all. That belief turns into a habit. Now, they can fill a 10,000-seater stadium at Scotstoun. The club has really become a big part of the city.”
We are revisiting the vintage of 2015, of course, because their counterparts of 2019 have their own shot at glory. Dave Rennie and his team are on a nine-game winning run in the league and handed Ulster an almighty shellacking in their Scotstoun semi-final.
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Saturday’s showpiece is special for Glasgow, not just because it is their first since winning it all, but because it is in their own back yard amid the towering green of Celtic Park.
Standing in their path, the holders. A Leinster team laden with champions, Lions and Grand Slam winners. The visiting coach, Leo Cullen, may have had his tongue wedged firmly in cheek when he suggested that any Celtic fans not watching the Scottish Cup final should come and back his team because “Glasgow are all Rangers supporters”, but stoking football rivalries in a city so scarred by sectarianism was never going to pass quietly.
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— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) May 24, 2019
“If I tell you what I am, it just kind of confirms what Leo Cullen said!” laughs Welsh, a local boy. “I’m a Rangers fan. In the West of Scotland, it’s generally 50-50. My grandfather is a Rangers man, my dad’s a Celtic man, my mum’s Rangers.
“Half my friends are Celtic fans, half are Rangers fans. It’s a day for Glasgow rugby. To bring that up is a bit… he’s probably not realised, not being from Glasgow. I wouldn’t take too much notice of it.
“Rugby is a sport that brings everyone together, as cheesy as it sounds. It’s got nothing to do with any of the bigoted nonsense that goes on. You grow up there, and everybody does support Rangers or Celtic, but rarely does it get mentioned when you’re playing rugby.”
In talking about the title run, Welsh name-checks almost every member of the squad that made it happen, but he lingers notably on a couple.
“The influx about two years after I joined, players like Alex Dunbar, Chris Fusaro, Pete Horne, Ryan Wilson, Peter Murchie, Rob Harley – all these guys who are stalwarts now. Every one of them was absolutely hungry, they all had big ambitions.
“If you ask who are the best professionals you’ve ever worked with – not meaning the best rugby players but the best professionals, Pete Horne always jumps in there. He loved everything about it, he loved doing the rehab, which is the kind of boring part.
“You talk about different styles and leagues, and I’ve said this since I came down here: Rob Harley would shine in this league. He’s big – they all want the biggest players – and he’ll run into a brick wall all day for you.
“Every time me and Rob are in Scotland camp together or on away trips, I always go to his room and we play chess, very civilised. He loves reading, very unusual books as well, very smart guy, but then on the pitch, he’s an absolute animal. That’s exactly what you want.”
On the day of the final, Glasgow seared into a commanding lead and Munster never looked capable of catching them. Leone Nakarawa, their massive Fijian sorcerer, put Harley in for a score, then sent DTH van der Merwe barrelling over for another.
Stuart Hogg splintered the Munster line and gave Henry Pyrgos a run-in for a third try before half-time and Finn Russell grabbed a fourth after the break. The final score was 31-13. It was the stuff of dreams, the rugby of champions.
“I can’t remember how many points we were up with 10 minutes to go, there was no way they were going to win it, but you still had that panic. Don’t let this slip, don’t let this slip.
“You know you can time tweets to go out? Guinness had sent out a message congratulating Munster on winning the league an hour or something after. They were just hot favourites – Munster, in Ireland, against Glasgow, who had never won it. But we just knew there was something special there.
“We’ve got a funny picture that I get sent from Al Kellock from time to time. We’ll probably get absolutely ripped for this, but we call it the championship steal. It’s me and Josh Strauss lifting Al and he’s stealing one of Munster’s lineouts. We’d come off the bench and we were winning the game anyway but it’s a picture I remember – we did really well in defensive line-outs that day.”
The aftermath was breathtaking. Rain teemed down and so did the tears. “Nah, I had sand in my eye,” Welsh says. Heavily fortified non-playing squad members came bellowing onto the field as the final whistle blew. Kellock thrust the trophy – the first major silverware held by any captain of any Scottish pro-team in history – into the Belfast air. Glasgow had conquered the PRO12 and the Kingspan became their castle, the ramparts swarming with revellers and their sky-blue flags.
“Beer was flying everywhere, everybody singing and jumping about. Wee Duncy Weir usually led the songs. I remember we went to the airport and our flight home got cancelled. We got back to the hotel at 1am, sitting around, thinking, this doesn’t feel like we’ve just won a title, but we got some pizza and a drink.
“It was very humbling to see the reception at the airport and in Glasgow the next day. It was magical. And if Glasgow go and win this on Saturday, there will be an even bigger reception. It’s grown so much over the last 10 years, rugby in Glasgow.”
Welsh will be watching from afar on Saturday, readying himself for a summer of rehab and, he desperately hopes, an injury-free run with Falcons in the Championship next season.
“I went to the Champions Cup final at St James’ Park this month. Saracens just contained Leinster with their defence. Any time Leinster played, they just backed themselves to defend. ‘On you go, play, we’ll deal with it’.
“I don’t want to jinx it too much, but Glasgow are going to do it again. After watching them against Ulster, they’ve got so much momentum behind them, they’re looking hot for it.”
What a day it would be, potential morphing into reality and fine players anointed champions. Scottish rugby has known too few of them.
WATCH: RugbyPass goes behind the scenes at the 2018 Guinness PRO14 final in Dublin
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Gavin Hastings, was playing was he? 🤔Go to comments
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