Tuesday 17 October 2017

Warriors skipper Kellock sees growing appeal of game in 'non-rugby' city

Alastair Kellock
Alastair Kellock
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

SCOTTISH rugby remains locked in a dark room, wondering if the sudden appearance of light is a trick of the mind.

Years of pain and suffering have conditioned the locals towards scepticism.

Just once since the inception of the Six Nations have they finished with more wins than losses, while only Edinburgh's run to the 2012 semi-finals has lit up European club rugby.

On a national level, the appointment of Vern Cotter was heralded as a coup when he was recruited from Clermont, but then they had to wait a year in which the New Zealander's reputation slipped with his club's fortunes, so even the marquee signing is looking less than stellar.

Few countries have adapted as poorly to professionalism as Scotland, whose dire performance in the Calcutta Cup game in this year's Six Nations led to calls for them to be thrown out of the competition.

Amid the turmoil and the negativity, there is a shimmer of light coming from an unexpected source.

The city of Glasgow has never been a rugby stronghold, but there is a sense that their home club is beginning to get a foothold in a crowded market.

"Traditionally, Glasgow isn't a rugby city," Warriors captain and native Glaswegian Alastair Kellock explained.

"The Borders and Edinburgh are rugby areas. I grew up playing rugby in Glasgow and it's very much a secondary sport. When I went to high school, I was the only guy dreaming of playing at Murrayfield. Everyone else was dreaming of Hampden.

"I mean, I grew up watching Glasgow and you are talking about 1,500-2,000 people at matches."

When the big second-row left Scotstoun after beating Zebre last Saturday night, he saw something new – fans queueing in the dark for tickets for tomorrow's semi-final against Munster.

It is the club's fourth time reaching the play-offs in five years, but the first time they will host a big occasion.

On the pitch, they have built a team under former coach Sean Lineen and present supremo Gregor Townsend that has competed well at league level, while underachieving in Europe.

The talent at Townsend's disposal includes Lions Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland, promising second-row Jonny Gray and Fijian magician Niko Matawalu.

Off it, they are growing commercial revenues in Scotland's biggest city, while finding a proper home has been a key factor to the club's emergence as a Pro12 force.

The move from Partick Thistle's home ground of Firhill to Scotstoun has proved a master stroke, according to Kellock.

"Throughout my time, we played at Hughendon and at Firhill – both good homes for us.

"But Scotstoun, when you arrive at the place and it's branded, you can see that it's Glasgow Warriors' home ground and people can have a real connection with the place," Kellock explained. "Ultimately, though, we have to be good on the pitch and we're making it a difficult place to come to and the fans have a huge part to play in that."

Those fans are not a traditional rugby crowd, with many being attracted to the club from football.

Rangers' financial problems and resultant demotion has left a whole swathe of supporters looking for a new team and the rugby club has welcomed them with open arms.

It leads to a different type of atmosphere, something closer to the football world than rugby and while his description of the 7,000-seater ground, supplemented by temporary seating and complete with a running track, as a "cauldron" seemed a little hyperbolic, Munster coach Rob Penney certainly remembers his last visit to Glasgow.

"There were arguments and so forth on the sideline after the final whistle last time we played there, which is an indication of how passionate they are and how much they want to succeed," the New Zealander recalled of the tempestuous clash last October.

PROJECTS

The club's success is being matched by projects off the pitch to try and take rugby into working-class areas like the East End, where the game has never been played.

"There are some areas in Glasgow where you have got to work hard to get anywhere," Kellock explained.

"Getting some of these kids who haven't necessarily had everything handed to them playing rugby is great, they bring an edge to it," he said. "That's in its infancy. The potential in a city the size of Glasgow is huge and that's true of the commercial side of it as well."

Scottish rugby has a long way to go.

Up the road in Edinburgh there are not enough Scottish players, so coach Alan Solomons is filling his team with journeymen from the southern hemisphere. The outlook is bleak.

But, Glasgow could be offering that chink of light so desperately craved even if Scottish rugby fans will hold off on getting excited just yet.

Reaching a final would give the whole game a lift, even just a temporary one, that is badly needed.

Irish Independent

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