After the opening two rounds of the RaboDirect PRO12, Glasgow Warriors could be found down at the bottom of the table without a point to their name.
With nothing but a lot of sweat to show for clashes against Ulster and Munster, they might have looked as far from the play-offs then as they had been throughout the previous season when only Aironi cushioned them from rock-bottom.
By mid-September the five other championship contenders were not only up and running but eight points clear as in the case of Ospreys, Munster and Ulster. Some teams, of course, just take a little while to get going and during their 18 matches since then, the Warriors have not failed to take something from each and every one.
Having hauled themselves all the way up into the play-off zone, the question now is whether they can hold their nerve and secure a top-four finish by clearing the last two hurdles. At the very least that would give them a semi-final against Leinster in Dublin which is where they have already won this season – 23-19 last September in what was the first win of their campaign.
The reigning European champions are already guaranteed first place no matter what happens in their remaining matches, Ulster at Ravenhill on Friday evening and the Dragons at Newport on May 5, the last day of the regular season. To be sure of keeping their part of the bargain, Alastair Kellock’s team must produce a grandstand finish, starting with Benetton Treviso where the Italians have lost their last three home matches (Ulster 23-27, Blues 13-20, Munster 14-35).
What happened at Firhill in the first month of the season, when they succumbed to five Kris Burton goals, ought to provide the Scots with all the motivation they require to ensure they stay on track. Any late stumble is always liable to open the door for Ulster and/or the Scarlets, the only one of the top six to finish with successive home engagements – Munster this weekend followed by the demoralised Blues.
What also sets the Warriors apart from those surrounding them on the list of contenders is that the other five have all been crowned Celtic League champions at least once – Munster and Ospreys three times, Leinster twice, Scarlets and Ulster once. If the team coached by Sean Lineen are still one point clear in fourth place after concluding their regular programme at home to Connacht, then Stuart Hogg’s hat-trick at Musgrave Park last week will assume still greater significance.
Until then, the three major domestic European Leagues had produced just the three hat-tricks between them. Wasps wing Christian Wade accounted for the first, against Leicester last September, Toulouse’s Fijian finisher Timoci Matanavou for the second, against Begles-Bordeaux the following month and Edinburgh’s Tim Visser for the third, against Aironi in December.
Unlike the three above, Hogg delivered his hat-trick away from home, completing it with the last move of the match at Musgrave Park to ensure the Warriors a precious losing bonus point. After winning his first cap against Wales in February and scoring his first try rapidly after his first start against France a fortnight later, the 19-year-old from Hawick has now claimed the first teenaged League hat-trick since Jason Tovey for the Dragons against Ulster three years ago.
Hogg, one of the brightest new lights in the Six Nations firmament, wasted no time putting his three tries into a team context and deflecting any personal glory. ‘It’s the result that matters,’ he said, referring to the 35-29 defeat. ‘We just never turned up in the first half. We weren’t good enough against a team of their calibre.’
Munster having made them pay so dearly for their indiscipline that not even Hogg’s Herculean recovery service could change the result, Lineen will demand an urgent improvement. The last thing he needs is to see his Warriors give Treviso’s Burton the sort of field day which allowed Ian Keatley to drill six penalties through the posts in Cork last weekend.
Hogg is not the only young man busy showing that there is more to football life in Glasgow than Celtic and Rangers. Fly-half Duncan Weir, who has already kicked 82 goals this season, is the next youngest at 20. Centre Alex Dunbar and back row forward Rob Harley are 21, Scotland’s magnificent Lion of a lock Richie Gray is only 22 as are flanker Chris Fusaro and scrum-half Henry Pyrgos.
Ospreys, winners of the first Grand Final two years ago when they went to Dublin’s RDS and beat Leinster at their citadel, will be expected to clinch a home semi-final by beating the Dragons in Swansea on Friday night and Aironi in Italy a fortnight later. Nine points out of a maximum ten would be enough to keep them beyond the reach of Munster no matter what the outcome of their games at Llanelli and home to Ulster.
In that event, the holders will be back in Wales sooner than scheduled to put their title on the line at the Liberty Stadium in one semi with Leinster awaiting the Warriors, Ulster or Scarlets in the other.
The play-offs: Who plays who:
Leinster (73 points) Ulster (away), Dragons (away)
Ospreys (62 points) Dragons (home), Aironi (away)
Munster (60 points) Scarlets (away), Ulster (home)
Warriors (57 points) Treviso (away), Connacht (home)
Ulster (56 points) Leinster (home), Munster (away)
Scarlets (55 points) Munster (home), Blues (home)