Fifty years ago sons of Glasgow marched on Lisbon, as Celtic became the first British team to win football’s European Cup. Now the city’s rugby Warriors are striving for their own European conquest — at the home of seemingly invincible Saracens.
Warriors and Lions
The Warrior clans of Clydeside are heading for a noisy corner of north London this weekend in search of Glasgow’s greatest European conquest for exactly 50 years.
Nothing in the city’s rich sporting folklore can ever surpass Celtic’s pioneering conquest of the continent in 1967 but, with an impeccable sense of timing, Glasgow’s rugby players are giving the revered ‘Lisbon Lions’ a decent run for their money.
According to the club, more than 5,000 will make the long journey south in the hope of witnessing history repeat itself on Sunday afternoon. For that to happen the Warriors will have to clear a hurdle more formidable than any confronted by Celtic half a century ago en route to their final against Inter Milan. At least they avoided the best team in Europe until last.
The Warriors’ first Champions’ Cup quarter-final sends them careering headlong into the champions of England and Europe — Saracens at Allianz Park. Under the direction of former Ireland centre Mark McCall, the holders are as relentless as ever in their defence of both titles.
Nobody has beaten them in European competition since Clermont in the quarter-final two years ago, a 15-match run preserved at Llanelli in January when Chris Ashton’s latest of late tries allowed them to sneak away with a draw. The Warriors will not be the least bit daunted.
They are no slouches when it comes to beating the big beasts of the rugby jungle. Reaching the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club event for the first time meant removing the reigning French champions and the only English club to have reached five European finals.
True to their name, the Warriors beat Racing home and away over a period of six days in December. By the third week of the New Year they had completed another, more satisfying double against Leicester. Beating them 42-13 at Scotstoun in the opening round of the tournament was nothing compared to what followed in the East Midlands at the end of it.
They subjected the old English giants to a trouncing they never experienced before. Six tries and 43 points without a single shot fired in reply left the clapped-out Tigers in serious need of assistance from the International Fund For Animal Welfare. Gregor Townsend’s Glaswegians could hardly have introduced themselves as serious contenders in more convincing style.
And yet, not so long ago, the prospect of breaking new ground in Europe and winning the PRO12 had been so implausible anyone daring to suggest it might happen one day would have been laughed at. Nathan Bombrys dared to suggest it shortly after joining the Warriors some five years ago and, yes, he was laughed at. A 42-year-old American from a village in Michigan, Bombrys arrived in Glasgow from Sale Sharks as the Warriors’ managing director with all the zeal of a missionary.
‘’After about a month, I did a presentation about what we were going to try to do over the next few years,’’ he says. ‘’I spoke about how I wanted to be part of a club that won the PRO12 and won the European Cup. Some of the staff couldn’t believe what I was saying. There were a few involuntary reactions and some laughter. When Gregor arrived shortly afterwards, there was a lot less laughter although I’m not sure there was total belief.’’
Rugby in a city obsessed by Celtic and Rangers was always going to be a hard sell. Once they stopped wandering around all over the country like a lost tribe of Bedouin and found a place to call home, the locals began taking a curious look at a team for once winning more than it was losing.
In not much more than five years average attendances have climbed from fewer than 3,000 to 7,300. Every home match this season has been a sell-out and Bombrys offers inspiring anecdotal evidence of the impact the Warriors have had, and continue to have, on their diehard Celtic-Rangers neighbours.
“After we beat Munster in the PRO12 semi-final, the coaches went out for a few beers. Gregor got a taxi home and the driver, grinning from ear to ear, says to him: ‘I’m a fitba man meself but have ye heard about that big win for the Warriors rugby team? They’re in the final. Isn’t that great for Scotland?’ ‘’Gregor didn’t let on who he was. ‘Aye,’ he says. ‘I heard about that. And you’re right, it is great for Scotland.’”
The second story happened last September when the Warriors’ home match against Leinster clashed with Celtic-Rangers. “I’m walking out of the railway station heading for Scotstoun when I bump into a couple of guys dressed from head to toe in the colours of one of the Old Firm,’’ says Bombrys.
‘’We get chatting, I tell them I’m off to the rugby and normally that would have been that. Instead, they were really interested in the Warriors, asking about the prospects of a win and how they would find a pub after their match to catch the rugby on television. It’s not Thomond Park but times here have changed.
‘’We put great emphasis on providing a family-friendly environment. We have a daily ritual at Scotstoun that the first person you see, you shake hands and say ‘hello.’ The players always make a big thing of shaking hands with the fans. It’s rugby. It’s fun.’’ Bombrys, who had never seen a rugby ball in rural Michigan until he enrolled at Syracuse University, estimates half of the Warriors’ bulging support are “new to rugby”, in other words converts from football.
Unlike some clubs, notably Toulon, Montpellier and, to a lesser extent, Saracens, the Warriors have climbed into the top flight of the European game without diluting their national flavour. They are a Scottish team, unmistakably so.
No club makes a heftier contribution to the national cause — more than 20 to Scotland’s World Cup squad and almost as many for the Six Nations.
Inevitably, that comes at a price and three successive PRO12 defeats during the tournament will almost certainly cost them their usual play-offs place.
In going where no Scottish club has gone this weekend as a fully paid-up member of Europe’s top eight, the Warriors will again take pride from a team of largely Scottish players even if one of them, the flying Tommy Seymour, happens to have been born in Nashville.
And in that respect they bear a striking resemblance to the irrepressible Celtic team of 50 years ago and how they won the European Cup not just with an all-Scottish team but one born within a 30-mile radius of Glasgow.
At Saracens on Sunday, the Warriors could have that many in their starting XV, albeit a few from farther afield of Glasgow than 30 miles.
If they pull it off and go all the way to the final at Murrayfield in May, then, who knows, Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Johnny Gray might one day be enshrined in Scottish footballing folklore alongside Jimmy Johnstone, Billy McNeill, Stevie Chalmers et al.
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