Friday 17 January 2020

Upwardly mobile Glaswegians hope revolution begins at home

The Warriors are following example of Irish provinces in bid to lift Scottish rugby, says Brendan Fanning

Glasgow’s Tim Swinson wins the lineout ball during their opening Heineken Cup Pool 2 match against Toulon last Sunday
Glasgow’s Tim Swinson wins the lineout ball during their opening Heineken Cup Pool 2 match against Toulon last Sunday
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Early in the second half of their 2000 Six Nations game against Scotland in Lansdowne Road, Ireland were 13-10 in front but looking unsure of themselves. It was their default mode in those days. They had been hit with 50 points in Twickenham two weeks earlier, and in that fortnight the pressure on coach Warren Gatland had built to a point where another defeat would see him walk the plank.

At the time for Ireland, the Scots were the sporting equivalent of the Grim Reaper. It had been 1988 since Ireland's last win in the fixture, and only against France were the figures worse, and understandably so given the respective resources. Being ritually humiliated by the Scots, however, was hard to explain with facts and figures.

Then one of those 'sliding doors' moments occurred. With the Scots on the attack and making good headway, referee Joel Dume somehow forgot an advantage he was playing for them and allowed Ireland hack a loose ball the length of the field. Debutant Shane Horgan collapsed over the line to score and only Gatland could challenge him for the title of happiest man in Ireland.

Ireland raced away to win the game 44-22. Afterwards as a rugby nation we turned right and down the road to prosperity. The Scots turned left and fell off the edge of the cliff. Having lost 11 of the previous 12 fixtures between the countries – the only respite was a draw – we turned the relationship on its head, winning 10 of the next 12. And what was going on at international level was reflected by events one rung down the ladder, where in both Celtic League and Heineken Cup the Irish left the Scots so far behind as to be out of sight.

Two years ago, a glimmer of hope flickered across the water. Edinburgh made an unlikely charge that took them as far as the Heineken Cup semi-final, only to be put down by Ulster. In the previous round nearly 38,000 had turned up at Murrayfield, a uniquely large attendance at a stadium that for club games is about as raucous as a library.

That blip only illustrated how far Edinburgh were down the graph, however, for in their less glamorous incarnation as a Pro12 team they had been dredging along at the lower end of the table, and finished one off the bottom.

Forty minutes down the road in Glasgow, though, a more robust creature was emerging. In their last two Pro12 campaigns, Gregor Townsend's team have finished fourth and third respectively, and currently top the table unbeaten – the only team in the league unblemished. And this afternoon in Europe they will take on Exeter in a game as eagerly awaited as any other in Round 2 of this Heineken Cup.

So there is something very positive happening in the west end of Glasgow, where there is a wholly different vibe to their former lodgings across town in dreary Firhill.

The unwritten rule in being successful in pro sport is to start by owning your own ground. It's unwritten because there are exceptions: Leinster are the obvious case – they are tenants in the RDS, but tenants with a bit of clout.

"The best thing that happened to us was moving there," says their chief executive Mick Dawson. "There were a few in Leinster who wanted us to stay in Donnybrook at the time because it was our traditional home, but if we'd stayed we'd be dead now. Simple as that."

Glasgow have taken a leaf from the same book, understandably enough given that their managing director, Nathan Bombrys, is no stranger on this island, having taken a good look at how all four provinces run their operations.

"I spent a lot of time with Mick and his team and with Garrett (Fitzgerald) in Munster and I went to Connacht and Ulster as well, studying what the Irish clubs are doing," Bombrys says. "Leinster is the model we're closest to I'd say. Ulster have just taken it to another level with the stadium but with Leinster there are similarities in that Scotstoun is a former showground and it's the right home in the right part of the city.

"I'd say moving there has been key for us. I'm only in my third season with the Warriors but I had a former captain who came in early doors when I started, and I showed him around the facility and he couldn't get his jaw up off the floor he was so envious. He was going through the list of all the places he'd trained in when he was with the club and I stopped him when he got to 10. For the players and the fans to have a home for Glasgow Warriors is tremendous. Everybody at some point in their lifetime wants a home they can do up."

The extent of the redecorations is key, for it was the capacity of the RDS that first attracted Leinster. Gradually Scotstoun, where the club now has its offices and training base, is increasing its capacity. For today's game a temporary stand will bring the ceiling up to 6,500 from 5,200, and in December that will go up to 7,500.

When the IRB Sevens comes to town in May, the ground will be transformed into a 15,000 arena thanks to cooperation from the Warriors' landlords, Glasgow City Council. That capacity will be available for their last home game in the Pro12, against Zebre, by which stage they need to be chasing a home semi-final, in which case the crowd figure will be instructive.

"I remember being at Leinster last year when they beat us and they proudly announced their sixth straight season of over 10,000 season-ticket holders," Bombrys says. "And here we are patting ourselves on the back because we've tripled it to 2,600 in three years. We've a long way to go, and the next step is to generate more money ourselves."

The SRU are looser with their cash these days, and in BT Sport both Glasgow and Edinburgh have stumbled into some hard cash that has seen both clubs recruit aggressively. Significantly, though, there is a healthier throughput of local talent, an area the Scots had come to believe was simply barren land.

Indeed between the two clubs you could put together a backline featuring Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Tom Heathcote at halfback, Dougie Fife, Matt Scott or Mark Bennett in the centre, and Tom Brown with Jamie Farndale on the wings, and reckon that this group will be together at Test level before too long.

If they aren't, and if they haven't got there on the back of some success at club level, then it will push Scotland even further towards the edge of the rugby world, a planet where they have little relevance beyond exporting their best players.

If this game wasn't run by unions then there wouldn't be a professional game in Scotland, and we wouldn't be seeing Glasgow's current surge. How far can it go in a city evenly split between blue and green, and in a rugby world unsure of its future?

"Everyone's going to have a football team and that's part of life in Glasgow," says Bombrys. "But there are also people who want something different, a big sporting occasion where they can take their wife and kids. The whole city can get behind us – there's no division. As for Europe, we've been here before. We think Glasgow as a city adds something to the European competition, that it's a worthwhile destination. What we're doing is trying to build a club that the rest of Europe wants to come and play."

Beating Exeter today would be a big step on that road.

Sunday Independent

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