Pro14 final: Glasgow are transformed, but holders Leinster remain rightful favourites
|Pro14 final: Glasgow Warriors v Leinster|
|Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow Date: Saturday, 25 May Kick-off: 18:30 BST|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland; text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app.|
It might not be stretching it to say that some Celtic fans would mistake a rugby ball for a football that had been rolled over by Scott Brown's 4x4, but this evening more than 46,000 people will attend the Pro14 final between Glasgow Warriors and Leinster at Celtic Park, disco lights and all.
A crowd of this size has never watched a Scottish rugby club in their own country. There's never been as much hype and hoopla, not even when Edinburgh made the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2012, or when Glasgow made it to Pro12 finals in 2014 and 2015. This is different, very different.
Their evolution has been quite something. Stuart Hogg played his first game for Glasgow in 2011 in front of 1,709 people at Firhill. Today, against the four-time European champions and five-time champions of this competitions in all its forms, he will play his last in front of 25 times that number.
In the east end of one of the world's most intense football cities, we're not just seeing a great stadium transformed, we're seeing the continuation of a story that many thought impossible. In the heartland of Celtic and Rangers, rugby is flourishing. Saturday is the latest, and greatest, illustration of the rise of a team in a place where they barely existed as an attraction less than a decade ago.
Glasgow's path to this final has been deeply impressive. More league points than any other team, more try bonus points than any other team, more elan and possibly more noise too. Certainly, their semi-final last weekend against Ulster at Scotstoun was as raucous as that stadium has ever been. Even seasoned Glasgow campaigners said in the aftermath that they'd never heard anything like it.
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'Screaming like lunatics' on Glasgow 'journey'
A couple of years ago, a visiting player of some repute spoke about the lustiness of the home crowd after his team had been beaten out the gate by the Warriors. The expletives have been removed from the following sentence, but if you put about 14 f-words in there, you'll catch his drift.
"That crowd," he said of the Glasgow supporters. "They roar at every decision the referee makes. They're off their heads. They got the most blatant yellow card in the history of yellow cards, but they were on their feet screaming like lunatics. Just sit down and shut up."
When this tale was relayed to a diehard Warrior, the pride on his face was akin to when his wife gave birth to their first child. At last, Glasgow were getting under the skin of the established order, not just beating them but noising them up into the bargain.
It's not just on the field where Glasgow have stepped up, it's off it as well. "Journey" is a cliched concept now, owned by sad cases from reality TV, but it's the right word to describe what's happened with the Warriors and their supporters these past years. They've travelled this road together, their numbers growing all the while.
Their first title was won in front of 17,000 in Belfast four years ago, but as unforgettable as it was, this would out-do it if they were to win. Munster were decent opponents in 2015, but they didn't have the big-game mentality and trophies that Leinster have. Munster hadn't won - and still haven't won - silverware since 2011. Leinster have won nine major titles since 2008.
Despite home city advantage for Glasgow, the visitors are the favourites. Their main focus every year is the European Cup, but they fell short in the defence of their title this year. Their defeat in the final against Saracens was nowhere near as gruesome as Glasgow's obliteration by the same opponent in the quarter-final, but it stung every bit as much.
That loss only ratcheted up the importance of the Pro14 final in the eyes of the Leinster players. They're not used to ending a season pot-less. Many of them play for Ireland and their own Test season was a flop. This is the last chance for Johnny Sexton and chums to salvage something from the wreckage of 2019 before heading into World Cup mode.
They're the bookies' choice for a reason. Leinster have an intensity that few teams can match. They bring a brutish physicality, a relentless, in-your-face attrition. They will attempt to pound Glasgow into the Celtic Park turf, battering them, exhausting them, feeding off their errors, turning the screw slowly but surely until Dave Rennie's team are sick of running at a blue wall or having the blue wall running at them.
Leinster keep ball like few other sides, Saracens apart. That's been their hallmark, the foundation of their success. At their best, they're a magnificent force, littered as they are with Lions, Grand Slam winners, European Cup winners. In each of the last three Pro14, Pro12 seasons, Leinster have finished top of the try-scoring charts. They can fight and they can play.
Not all of them have delivered their best stuff this season - Sexton has toiled for much of it - but in the semi-final, they brushed Munster aside with contemptuous ease. Munster tried to make a war of it. Bad idea.
Devin Toner will be a loss, no question. Toner doesn't rate highly in the glamour stakes, but as their principal lineout man, and caller of those lineouts, he's a massively important player and one that hooker Sean Cronin will surely miss. Toner's absence is a chance for Glasgow to stop Leinster from getting into their murderously effective rhythm.
More than rugby Harlem Globetrotters
If it's fair to say that Glasgow haven't played many teams like Leinster this season then the reverse is also true. Rennie's side have come with a devastating late-season run, the catalyst for it being that drubbing at the hands of Saracens.
What we admire about them is their attacking nous, their speed of thought and intelligence in exploiting opportunities from deep in their own territory. That's always been the Glasgow way. Most recently, they've been utterly ruthless.
They look to have become more than a rugby Harlem Globetrotters, though. This final will be the ultimate test of that, of course, but Glasgow's forwards have had a much harder edge to them since that bullying by Saracens.
Last season, they also got beaten up twice by Leinster in Europe, the Irish side scoring 89 points. The danger of Leinster arm-wrestling their way towards a comfortable victory is still very real, but it looks like Glasgow are bringing a lot to more to the table this time. They also have a far more convincing bench than before - better, even, than Leinster's.
For all the attacking brilliance on the field on both sides, everything depends on what happens up front. Glasgow think they've made giant strides in that department. Today, in the most unique surroundings, is the day to prove it.