Initially, nobody huddled inside the post-match media marquee at Celtic Park asked Callum Gibbins a question. Frankly, they didn’t need to, for everything about what Glasgow’s captain felt about the hurt of a Guinness PRO14 final defeat and the glorious opportunity his team couldn’t quite grasp was plastered across his face.
“Smouldering” is the de rigueur term for the unseeing glare fixed on the face of the New Zealander, jaw rigid, eyes boring into nothing in particular, as the Leinster fans thronged in the Glasgow drizzle to hail their champions.
Eventually, the questions came, and Gibbins answered them. Warriors made too many wrong decisions, he said. They coughed up ball too often and their error count was too high.
“We’ve got the game to win these big ones. They key ingredient is just looking after ball a bit more. We’ll probably be better off for this come next year but… yeah, looking after the ball.”
The deflation in Glasgow ranks was not just because they had lost a final, but because they had lost this final. It will be a long time before Warriors have the showpiece in their own back yard again, with a huge and cacophonous home crowd and a nine-match winning run heading into the contest. Everything was there for them, but they couldn’t get over the line.
Commiserations to @glasgowwarriors who battled until the very end tonight
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) May 25, 2019
Celtic Park is one of the great cathedrals of British football and how the rugby fans made it sing. It was an atmosphere you don’t often get at Murrayfield – boisterous, intimidating, feverish. It was Scotstoun on steroids. The old main stand quivered when Glasgow’s troops stomped their feet and bellowed.
Rugby in this city has exploded, largely thanks to what the Warriors have done on the paddock and in the community this past decade. Rob Harley, their record appearance holder, played his first game in front of 2,879 in the autumn of 2010. On Saturday, he made his 212th club outing in front of almost 45,000 more.
Glasgow’s crowd is notoriously oppressive and extremely knowledgeable, but the storybook ending they craved was beyond their heroes in black. This was the meeting of a coming team and one who arrived a long time ago. A team with intoxicating young talent and a team of canny champions.
Leinster have been through the “nearly” cycle, the slew of near misses that almost every great side in rugby history must endure before smashing through the glass ceiling. Three years ago, they finished bottom of their European Champions Cup pool, a wretched haul of six points from six games, and got a doing from Connacht in the PRO12 final.
In 2017, they made the semi-finals of both tournaments and lost. A year later, they won the lot. Saracens snatched away their European crown this month, but four finals and three titles in two years? That’s phenomenal. That’s fortitude. That’s class.
The resilience of this Leinster side is almost palpable. The Saracens final, a game they led 10-0, will have clubbed their bodies and strained their minds. They could have wilted, but of course they didn’t. They roused themselves and went again. Munster were next – another whopper of a semi-final and a brutally hard-fought victory.
Congratulations to @leinsterrugby and @GlasgowWarriors there can only be one winner but boy did you both do @PRO14Official proud in front of a record of over 47k at @CelticFC #GuinnessPRO14 #PRO14Proud pic.twitter.com/DjRfYT4dpW
— Martin Anayi (@TinoAnayi) May 26, 2019
Pitched into this rumbling cauldron of hostility in Glasgow’s East End, Leinster were bludgeoned early on. Johnny Sexton’s passing was loose, he shanked two garryowens and pushed a straightforward penalty shot wide. Celtic Park was reverberating and the place went bonkers when Matt Fagerson scored the opening try.
The gauntlet had been thrown down to the champions, but the champions’ response was devastating. Not ninety seconds later, Luke McGrath charged down Stuart Hogg and Garry Ringrose plunged on the loose ball.
Warriors pummelled them in that first quarter. They had almost two-thirds of the first-half possession and territory but Leinster’s defence was outstanding. Jordan Larmour did enough to bring DTH van der Merwe crashing down a metre short of the line when it looked for all the world like a second Glasgow try was imminent.
When Leinster got their hands on ball, they made it count. Cian Healy burrowed over, Sexton kicked a penalty, and the province led 15-10 at the interval.
Their second-half performance was masterful, an exercise in game management, right up until the final’s great moment of chaos and for much of the play that followed it. With 15 minutes left, Rob Kearney hared after a garroywen and poleaxed Hogg in the air. It was a sickening fall that concussed the Scot, and Celtic’s Park’s reaction to the clattering of their totem was thermonuclear.
Kearney thundered into a contest he had little chance of winning and was exceedingly fortunate not to be sent off. Only Hogg’s landing on the upper portion of his back rather than his head saved his opposite man from dismissal. “No doubt there will be more to come,” said a typically deadpan Dave Rennie.
Leinster lost their full-back for 10 minutes; Glasgow lost their talisman for remainder of the game. It was a desperate end for Hogg, his last act as a Warrior before joining Exeter Chiefs to be led staggering and stupefied to the touchline. This day will haunt him, you feel, but his influence in hauling Glasgow and Scottish rugby from the doldrums has been immense.
By that point, Leinster were two scores in front. The odds on a comeback, with or without Kearney, were long. Even when Grant Stewart scampered away to drag Glasgow back within three points with five minutes left, Leinster turned the screw again. They kept Glasgow in their own 22 and challenged them to run from deep. It was magnificent, ruthless defence. James Ryan and Rhys Ruddock made 53 tackles between them.
In a game @GlasgowWarriors lost by three points, these three moments in the first half were pivotal in deciding the @PRO14Official final, giving @leinsterrugby all they needed to come away with the title. @bensmithrugby https://t.co/HhNNHonfrQ
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 26, 2019
In that second half, the rain fell in sheets and 73 per cent of the rugby was played inside Glasgow territory. Warriors conceded double the number of turnovers – 14 – as did Leinster. They took the wrong option too many times and their error count swelled. All these mistakes, and still they were but three points short of glory.
This young team is evolving and Saturday will be a formative experience for many of them. In the back end of the season, they have shown a belligerence and physical snarl like nothing evident during Rennie’s debut campaign. Fagerson, 20, and 22-year-old Scott Cummings, two of the youngest blokes on the field, were immense. Eight of the starting XV were 25 or younger.
Two of the elder statesmen in Pete Horne and Ryan Wilson spoke in the aftermath about Glasgow’s run to the title in 2015. Under Gregor Townsend, they lost a semi-final, lost a final, then won the crown in successive years. So far, they are two years into replicating that pattern. The thought of what may lie ahead will give the Warriors hordes a modicum of solace on a night of anticlimax.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) May 25, 2019
Leinster played the rugby of a team who have been here a million times before and know how to get over the line. It was often turgid, unappetising fare to watch, but with each little rumble, each patiently churned ruck ball, they said to Glasgow, ‘you’re dying; your fairytale is withering’.
At the end, Celtic Park was oddly desolate, the Glasgow fans trickling away into the sodden night and fireworks erupting against the backdrop of empty seats. To Leo Cullen and his team, the subdued atmosphere and the pockets of Leinster revellers must have sounded like the roars of 60,000.
Fittingly, Sean O’Brien, their injured colossus bound for London Irish, was called up to the podium to join Sexton in hoisting aloft the trophy – another trophy. This was a fourth league title for O’Brien and Sexton. Between them, they have five European crowns and three Six Nations Championships, including a Grand Slam. The challengers keep coming, but so do Leinster.
WATCH: RugbyPass goes behind the scenes at the 2018 Guinness PRO14 final between Leinster and Scarlets in Dublin
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