Analysis: Attacking masterclass from Glasgow Warriors

Our analyst Sam Larner returns to Planet Rugby and this week studies the recent performance of Glasgow Warriors in their PRO14 semi-final win.

I often wonder if I would prefer to support a team who were always unsuccessful or a team who reached the heights but were, nonetheless, unsuccessful. I should point out straight away, this article is going to be about the Glasgow Warriors and I am not claiming that they are unsuccessful. They clearly aren’t. However, between 2012 and now they have played in the PRO14 semis every year bar one but only won the competition once. In that same time period they have made the Champions Cup quarter-finals twice, losing both to Saracens. They lost two semis and one final to Leinster in the PRO14 and have either beaten an Irish team to win, Munster, or been knocked out by an Irish side.

I know that there will be Dragons fans reading this who would willingly give up significant appendages to have the same record as the Warriors. They also wouldn’t need to deal with the pain of losing in the games that really matter. The Warriors might have played so well this year that they will once again lose in a final. Of course, if they play like they did against Ulster they have a much better shot. The Northern Irish side really never got into the game against the Warriors and that powerful pack mixed with outrageous attack is a match for any team when on form.

We’ll look at four of the Glasgow tries and what they tell us about how the team play. Each try is scored in a different way and showcases a different element of the Glasgow attack.

Glasgow have got to this stage by battering the Ulster defensive line with their forwards but now comes the time for Adam Hastings to shine. The fly-half looks to attack wide which brings the outside defence up but as he drifts he opens up an attacking line for DTH van der Merwe on his inside shoulder. In the end it comes to nothing but a positive yardage carry.

See though how Hastings immediately heads to the blindside to be involved in the next play. He is pulling all the strings and wants the ball in his hands as much as possible.

Hastings receives the ball back after it has gone through the hands of a tight forward and then delivers a fantastic pass over the top of the defensive line to the onrushing Tommy Seymour. Not content with that, and seeing the full-back cover, Hastings rushes up to be the first supporting player should Seymour need to pass back inside. The try was made through hard working forwards but it was converted thanks to Hastings’ ability to choose when to receive the ball and then his skills at exploiting a defence once he had identified a weakness.

That first try might have been all brawn and skills but this second one is all brains. Glasgow have got their maul moving forward and that has condensed the forwards. Ulster are happy with their blindside defence, they have one man covering Ali Price the scrum-half. Notice though how Van der Merwe doesn’t run into that gap immediately, he waits for Price to be ready to play the ball before charging into the blindside. The rest of the Warriors are set-up on the openside and that is where all the Ulster attention is focused.

Whereas previously Ulster would have been happy marking one scrum-half with one forward, that forward is now in no man’s land. His inside support was all heading to the openside to cover the expected next set of one out forward runners and he has been left alone. The result is a simple two on one, Price ends up scoring the try but if he gets a bonus for that then Van der Merwe deserves more than half of it. He spotted the mismatch and his run opened up the field in front of the Warriors. Often, what you do without the ball is as important as what you do with it.

This might look like a mess but these are all the options Hastings has when he picks up the ball. If you’ve watched any rugby of any type over the last few years this will be familiar; a line of hard runners, normally forwards, and an option of softer runners, normally backs, behind. The hard runners fix defenders and then the softer runners can find the holes.

Hastings picks the option out the back, Sam Johnson, who has Kyle Steyn on the inside and Rob Harley cutting back in on the outside with Stuart Hogg lying in wait. The lines of Harley and Steyn are all pulling the defence’s attention away from Hogg by running either an out to in or off the inside shoulder.

All those options have created this. Harley has cleared out a hole in the midfield which Johnson can now run into which leaves a three on two. The circled Ulster defender can either stay on Johnson and create a two on one on the outside or he can try and cover both Johnson and Hogg. In the end he gets caught in the middle of nowhere and Johnson passes to Hogg who feeds Seymour for another try. This was a try of perfectly executed structure. Clearly there were skills and brains involved but the try works because the structure has created a mismatch.

Once the game is won teams will often get more inventive. This isn’t the Warriors throwing caution to the wind though, this is a well executed try. When Hastings gets the ball he has attacking options out wide and that forces the defence to come out of the line. Hogg’s inside line makes the defence opposite him condense.

Hastings puts the kick into the pocket of space behind the rushing defenders. The try isn’t scored yet but it’s a relatively straightforward run in now that the initial defence has been beaten. Like with the earlier Price try, although Hogg and Hastings set this up, they were heavily assisted by the outside attackers who forced the Ulster defence to rush up and therefore leave space in behind.

Conclusion

Glasgow’s attack was wonderful to watch on Friday. They dominated in every aspect of the attack. Yes, it was exciting attacking rugby but it was only possible thanks to the go forward of the Glasgow ball carriers. Glasgow might have put themselves in a position where they lose in a final again, but it is much better to have played exciting rugby and lost than to have never played exciting rugby at all…as William Shakespeare said.

by Sam Larner