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PRO 14    

Glasgow believe they can win

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PRO 14    

Romance, momentum and belief lie firmly in one camp today

Against the dazzling backdrop of a lavender Glasgow sky, Stuart Hogg and his family bade farewell to Scotstoun, Ulster vanquished and the chance to leave his only professional club a champion beckoning.

The Hoggs strolled around the paddock on Friday night last week long after the final whistle had blown, drinking in every last drop of the joy and gratitude cascading down upon them from the stands.

The full-back began life as a professional player here, became Scottish rugby’s hottest young talent here, grew arrogant and big-headed here and almost left in a huff, sorted his attitude out and won a title, earned 67 caps and toured twice with the Lions here, became a leader and a father and cemented his place in Scotland’s pantheon of rugby giants here, won a move to one of Europe’s biggest beasts in Exeter Chiefs here.

The PRO14 semi-final shellacking of Ulster was a thunderous Scotstoun goodbye, but Hogg is desperate to ensure it was only a dress rehearsal. On Saturday, he will bow out as a Warrior in front of over 43,000 people inside Glasgow’s Celtic Park, the city’s biggest stadium, when Dave Rennie’s men take on defending champions Leinster in the league showpiece.

The final will be a colossal day for Glasgow rugby, an evening that will long be treasured and talked about if Warriors do the business on their own patch.

(Continue reading below…)

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Rennie has had to “put the brakes” on Hogg this week in training to stop him “going berserk”. There’s an almost palpable yearning about Glasgow to seize what’s in front of them. Since being physically battered by Saracens and verbally savaged by Rennie in late March, they have won four in a row, scoring at least 30 points in each, and are unbeaten in nine in the league.

Leinster are seasoned combatants and serial victors in the warfare of finals rugby, but the lead-up to Saturday has been troubling. Rob Kearney and the full-back’s apparently unacceptable contract offer. Leo Cullen, the coach, putting out his fishing rod and suggesting Celtic fans should come and support his team since the Warriors dressing room is full of Rangers men.

People like to be offended these days, but stoking football rivalries and all the religious tumult that goes along with them in Glasgow was always going to rankle.

Would Cullen have encouraged Celtic fans to back his team had Ulster made the final? Would he have roused nationalists in Northern Ireland to support Leinster had the showpiece been in Belfast? Were these the canny barbs of a man who has been here a million times before or the distraction tactics of a coach anxious about what is coming down the tracks?

Cullen apologised after naming his side on Friday and the whole business looks like a storm in a teacup now. The big former lock has a mountain of finals experience. He is the only man to win the Champions Cup as a player and a coach. His team have almost all of the big-match pedigree and almost all of the medals.

In their match-day 23, there are a dozen Grand Slam winners and five Lions. All of them were at the province last season when Leinster won a monumental PRO14 and Champions Cup double. They have reached the finals of both competitions this year, albeit Saracens had the beating of them in the European showpiece.

In Glasgow’s squad, there are no Test champions. Ten were part of the 2015 PRO12 title-winning lot but only DTH van der Merwe and Callum Gibbins have won any other major club silverware. This is new territory for Adam Hastings, Kyle Steyn and Scott Cummings and a host of others, but it is also a precious opportunity.

A year ago, a full-strength Leinster looked untouchable. Saracens, Exeter, Montpellier, Glasgow, Munster, Scarlets and Racing 92 all fell as Cullen and his men rumbled to their wonderful twosome.

Glasgow bore the brunt of that surge. In the pool stage of the Champions Cup, they copped two brutal beatings, matches that seemed to expose the flaws in their play. Leinster kept the ball so ably and Glasgow were so wasteful, so eager to get it moving wide before first driving it forward. Leinster circled like sharks, happily spooling through a mountain of seemingly benign phases before striking without mercy.

In a typically fascinating piece of statistical analysis, Glasgow fan Kevin Millar has run the numbers on the finalists’ attacks this season. Leinster are the PRO14’s most efficient team when it comes to retaining ball, but on average go through 40 per cent more rucks than Glasgow to make a line break. Their opponents make an average of 220 tackles per game, while Warriors’ opposition make 185.

Leinster’s ruthlessness remains, but Glasgow’s brawn has grown. In beating them in Dublin last month, Warriors’ tackle stats were astronomical. Seven of the starting pack made over 20. The other, Chris Fusaro, was injured early on and his replacement, Adam Ashe, made 26. The front row put in 77 between them. Matt Fagerson made 33 and Jonny Gray felled a ridiculous 43 Leinstermen without missing a single tackle.

Glasgow’s total was 302 made and 29 missed. They had 35 per cent possession and 43 per cent territory.
All those tackles and still Leinster scored four tries; still Glasgow had to bring their best stuff with the ball to win at the RDS for the first time since 2011. This was a different Warriors to the scintillating but flaky lot of last season.

They did it again to Edinburgh, a team who have taken great joy in roughing up their rivals from the west, in the 1872 Cup and their 50-20 demolition of Ulster was near-perfect. Snarling, direct forward play, an immense physical dominance, wonderful attacking fare and clinical finishing.

A battering and a bamboozling all at once. Only late slips with the game won and minds wandering allowed Ulster to salvage a modicum of pride. Matt Fagerson got man of the match but it could have gone to almost any man in black and blue.

Glasgow will have to be every bit as ferocious without possession and as fabulous with it on Saturday as they were in Dublin last month and at Scotstoun a week ago. This is finals rugby now. Leinster will be better and their totem, Johnny Sexton, an absentee last time, will be in the saddle at Parkhead.

Leinster have the experience, but Glasgow have the momentum. Leinster will be playing their third game and second final in 14 days, Glasgow just their second match in 28. Leinster have Sexton, Glasgow have Hogg. Cullen has won the league and Champions Cup as a coach, Rennie has two Super Rugby titles.

The final is in Glasgow, but Leinster will bring swarms of travelling fans. The province yearn to show they are still kings of the competition. Glasgow believe – truly believe – that this is their day.

WATCH: RugbyPass goes behind the scenes at the 2018 PRO14 final between Leinster and Scarlets in Dublin

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Romance, momentum and belief lie firmly in one camp today