Glasgow Warriors face Ulster at Scotstoun on Friday night with a place in the PRO14 final at stake. We provide the ultimate guide to the showdown…
Two stalwarts seek perfect parting gift
Rory Best is hanging up his boots at the end of the season, and defeat to Leinster at the quarter-final stage of the Champions Cup means hopes of the ideal send-off will be on the line for the Ulster captain.
After 14 years at the club, Best feels the northern province are in a far healthier position under Dan McFarland than they were 14 months ago, and the 36-year-old’s impending retirement is not the only huge incentive.
Ulster were denied a “home” final by Glasgow in 2015 at this stage, when the Warriors went on to beat Munster in the final at the Kingspan Stadium.
“That was bitterly disappointing. That felt like a massive opportunity for us,” Best said.
“To know the final was going to be at Kingspan, then to make a few errors and lose, at the point when the so-called great team had started to dismantle, you felt that might be the last roll of the dice for my era.”
With the final showpiece taking place at Celtic Park, Glasgow will be determined for a repeat of the 30-7 win over Ulster in the PRO14 last month, with Best not alone in seeking the perfect parting gift.
Stuart Hogg’s nine years at Glasgow come to end this summer as he prepares to join Exeter Chiefs. Emotions will be running high as the Scotstoun crowd bid farewell to their effervescent source of inspiration over 119 club appearances.
“This place means a great deal to me,” Hogg said. “It was good to get a bigger stadium [when Warriors moved to Scotstoun from Firhill in 2012] and the club has grown year on year ever since. So, it is a special place.
“If I get the opportunity to play at the weekend, I’ll relish it, and hopefully use it as an opportunity to thank the fans with my performances over the next couple of games. Hopefully we can win some silverware.”
He will hope to declare on 121, with a PRO14 winners’ medal around his neck, but having become the Scotland figurehead and two-tour British & Irish Lion in his time at the club, Hogg – like Best – will leave behind a huge void to fill.
Which side has greater semi-final pedigree?
In short, neither. The Warriors have reached the final on two previous occasions, most recently in 2015, when they beat Ulster at home and then Munster in Belfast in the final – one year on from their only other final appearance, where they were defeated by Leinster.
Ulster have only progressed to the PRO14 final on one occasion, in 2013, when they also suffered defeat at the hands of Leinster.
This Friday sees a repeat of the 2015 PRO14 play-off semi-final, when Ulster finished fourth in the league but lost to Glasgow Warriors to miss out on a place in the final.
Both Glasgow and Ulster were losing semi-finalists in the inaugural 2001/02 season of the previously named Celtic League, with the Warriors defeated 35-13 by Leinster, while Ulster lost 15-9 to Munster at Lansdowne Road.
Ulster again fell at the penultimate stage 12 months later at the hands of Munster, but Ulster were crowned champions in 2006 when the overall winner was determined on a home-and-away basis via a league format.
When the play-offs returned in 2010, it was Glasgow who suffered semi-final heartbreak, going down 20-5 to Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium.
More disappointment would await Ulster at the climax of the 2010/11 season as they lost 18-3 to Leinster at RDS Arena before it was the turn of Glasgow in 2012 to succumb to semi-final blues as Leinster prevailed 19-15 in Dublin.
The Warriors were left with a sense of deja vu when they fell to the same opponents the following campaign, but Ulster became the first to win a semi-final contest out of a combined eight encounters when they beat Scarlets 28-17 at Ravenhill in May 2013.
Glasgow finally reached the PRO12 final at the fifth attempt in 2014 after beating Munster 16-15 at Scotstoun, but they were not joined by Ulster, who lost 13-9 to eventual winners Leinster.
The Warriors beat Ulster 16-14 at the semi-final stage in 2015 courtesy of DTH van der Merwe’s dramatic late try, going on to beat Munster in the final, but both sides fell at this hurdle in 2016, to Leinster and Connacht respectively.
Glasgow again failed to make it past the final four 12 months ago when they were beaten 28-13 by eventual runners-up Scarlets, meaning that out of a combined 15 semi-final appearances, these sides have won just three ties.
Can Ulster show a clinical streak?
Ulster’s hopes of winning the European Champions Cup were ended at the quarter-final stage by Leinster in late March, but coach Dan McFarland will take the positives from that spirited display into this weekend’s battle.
Having produced their best defensive performance of the season that day at the Aviva Stadium – a ferocious tone set by a monstrous tackle by Stuart McCloskey on Cian Healy – they must do likewise if they are to book their spot at Parkhead.
Pressing home their advantage has been another issue at the sharp end of competition, with Billy Burns and especially Jacob Stockdale guilty of costly missed opportunities against Leinster.
With Stockdale expected to make his first appearance since suffering a hamstring injury against Edinburgh last month, this is the opportune moment for Ulster to rediscover their ruthless streak.
What have the coaches said?
McFarland will know all about what to expect from the first whistle on Friday night having spent two years at Glasgow earlier in his career, with the 47-year-old very aware of opposite number Dave Rennie’s blueprint for success.
“It’s being physical. If you watch any of his teams, that’s the same.
“Every collision is meant to be brutal, every clear-out is an opportunity. I’ve been lucky enough to be in meetings that Dave has given and watch their training sessions, I understand that approach and it’s very effective.
“I see it as an opportunity to learn from play-off games – and you can’t learn if you see it as a free hit.
“You can only learn if you give it your absolute best shot, so that comes in preparation, it comes in process, and it comes in game-planning. If any of those come second best, how do we learn?
“Anything less than that top level of performance, you can’t learn from it because all you know is we could have tried harder.”
Warriors head coach Rennie said: “We’re in a much better place than we were 12 months ago and have trained with a real edge during this three-week break.
“DTH is back earlier than we expected which is a big boost. His power as well as his experience of knock-out rugby will be invaluable tomorrow night.
“We know Ulster will be a completely different animal to the side we faced here last month and we’re going to have to play better than we did that day to get the result.
“We’re all determined to a be a part of a Glasgow Final and know we’re going to have to play our best rugby of the season to get there.”
Van der Merwe has defied expectations by being named in the Glasgow side for the semi-final encounter after a successful rehabilitation period on his shoulder injury.
The Canadian wing had been expected to play no more part in the season when he suffered the setback in the European Champions Cup pool game against Saracens in January, but Van der Merwe makes his return.
Stockdale’s recovery is not the only boost for McFarland. Louis Ludik also returns after not featuring since sustaining a knee injury in the win over Southern Kings in March.
Glasgow: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Kyle Steyn, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 DTH van der Merwe, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 Ali Price; 1 Jamie Bhatti, 2 Fraser Brown, 3 Zander Fagerson, 4 Scott Cummings, 5 Jonny Gray, 6 Rob Harley, 7 Callum Gibbins (c), 8 Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: 16 Grant Stewart, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 D’Arcy Rae, 19 Ryan Wilson, 20 Tom Gordon, 21 George Horne, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Huw Jones.
Ulster: 15 Jacob Stockdale, 14 Robert Baloucoune, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Louis Ludik, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney; 1 Eric O’Sullivan, 2 Rory Best (c), 3 Ross Kane, 4 Iain Henderson, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 6 Nick Timoney, 7 Jordi Murphy, 8 Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andy Warwick, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Alan O’Connor, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Michael Lowry, 23 Darren Cave.