Glasgow Warriors come up short against mirror-image Connacht
Glasgow have spent recent weeks engaging in rugby's equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel; a 70-point annihilation of Zebre, a 45-point deconstruction of the Scarlets, 43 more points put on Zebre the week before, 38 put on Treviso before that.
Four wins, four bonus points, a bucket of tries. Top spot in the Pro12. Easy.
Saturday at the Sportsground in Galway was like entering a different dimension. This was rugby, but not as Glasgow have known it against their most recent, and most compliant, opposition. What they ran into in the west of Ireland was a lot of rain and whole pile of belligerence.
Glasgow scored seven points - their lowest total in a Pro12 game since October 2013. They lost for the first time in 10 games.
Their discipline went at critical times and it hurt them almost as much as those howitzer hits that kept coming at them from a Connacht side that had a voracious appetite for work and a thunderous quality in the collisions.
"All the big games we've won have come down to physicality," said Connacht coach Pat Lam in the aftermath of victory. "It's about the way we impose ourselves."
"That came through in bucketloads against Glasgow. There's a blank canvas now, though. The weather conditions might be different the next day. The game could be a total contrast. Glasgow are a phenomenal team."
To explain the Cinderella story that is this Connacht side you have to look at the record books going back a dozen years. They were even lucky to be alive back then given that the IRFU wanted to kill them off.
From 2004 to 2015 Connacht never finished above seventh in the table. Now they're taking down the champions in front of a packed, and tumultuous crowd, including the president of the country, Michael D Higgins, and the newly elected Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Both are Connacht men. Both were waving the flag as Glasgow fell on Saturday.
This was brutal rugby. Both sides wanted to play but the rain made it impossible.
How much of a gauge it will be for the semi-final depends, in part, on what kind of day it is. If it's dry and the ground is hard then the game will be completely different. Both these teams want to take risks and make things happen. Saturday's grunt-fest in the wet didn't suit either of them.
Connacht use Glasgow model
What was compelling about it, though, was that Glasgow met a version of themselves in Galway. For some of them, it must have been like looking in a mirror.
The Sportsground had a similar edge to it as Scotstoun, the same kind of numbers, the same kind of intimacy, the same kind of railing against decisions that went against their team, the same kind of joy at victory.
The team inspired the supporters and the supporters inspired the team. The bond between them reminded you of what it's like in Glasgow these days. It was powerful.
Connacht dug deep, hit hard and won out. We've seen this kind of thing so often in Glasgow's own place - a team being lifted by the noise of their home crowd and dragging themselves across the winning line.
Connacht's reward is a rematch with Glasgow in the semi-final in a fortnight. Back to the dog track we go in the knowledge that an away team has never won a Pro12 semi-final. Twelve attempts and twelve losses. That's the kind of history that Glasgow are trying to break now.
Warriors must improve for rematch
That curious run of failure for the away semi-finalists will be part of the narrative ahead of the knockout tie, though Gregor Townsend was of a mind to play it down a tad.
"Last year, we played Ulster at Scotstoun in the final game of the league proper and we beat them convincingly," he said. "A week later, we played them at Scotstoun in the semi-final and they were all over us for 50 minutes.
"If all these home wins in all these semi-finals were by 20 points then I'd say that home advantage was a massive factor, but last year we only won our home semi by two points and Munster only won theirs by three. The year before that we had Munster in a home semi and beat them by a point. Leinster won their home semi by four points."
It's true that a lot of these games have been settled by a single score. Five of the last six Pro 12 semi-finals - and seven of the 12 - have been won by four points or less.
Why does the home team keep on winning tight matches? Townsend accepts that the crowd can make the difference.
"We had a lot of support in Galway but when they have 7,000 people then that's an advantage. We didn't cope as well as we should have. We learned a lot about ourselves.
"We have to be more disciplined and more accurate. Connacht are really well-coached, they show innovation, they've got character and they defend well. We've just got to be better."
Townsend said that the big thing that his team took away from the west of Ireland was a sense of "determined disappointment."
Saturday would have hurt them physically and mentally, but it wasn't a knockout blow. We get to see the heavyweights collide again in a fortnight.