The concept of momentum in sport is as nebulous as it is overused. It is a label we love to attach after the fact and ignore as soon as it becomes inconvenient.
Take two of the most recent examples: the Calcutta Cup and Sunday’s frankly bonkers Challenge Cup Quarter-Final between Clermont and Northampton.
Good luck finding a match report in either that did not use the phrase ‘shift in momentum’ as Scotland and Saints managed to come back from at least four scores down to threaten a victory, and in the case of the Scots, earn a draw.
A quick look at the scoreboard progression and it is easy to argue that momentum carried the
visitors on each occasion to get back into games that seemed to be over. To explain how England and Clermont managed to stem the tide and avoid defeat – or in Clermont’s case, score three tries in the last eight minutes – is a little trickier.
Bill Barnwell of ESPN wrote arguably the definitive article on momentum in sport back in 2013 , making a very strong case as to why momentum within a game is not as clearcut as it may seem.
But what about when it comes to a season? Is it possible for a team to lose momentum when it comes to the business end of a campaign because of a lack of pressure games in the preceding weeks and months?
In football we often hear how Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain pay the price in the big European knock-out games for their lack of competitiveness in their domestic league, admittedly Bayern cannot use that excuse this season for their recent European exit.
When it comes to rugby, Glasgow Warriors’ Director of Rugby Dave Rennie believes his team suffered last season and lost their edge because they were so far clear of the chasing pack.
The Warriors had wrapped up a Guinness PRO14 Finals Series spot by February but failed to win back-to-back league games after January 6 as their form flagged in the second half of the season.
They still finished top of Conference A with a seven-point buffer over Munster but were duly beaten on home turf in the Semi-Final by the Scarlets, outplayed by a team who had gone into the final game of the campaign needing a win to guarantee a home Quarter-Final game.
This year, Glasgow have a rather bigger challenge on their hands following their elimination from Europe over the weekend. While a Final Series spot looks all but secure with a 14-point lead over Cardiff Blues in fourth, the battle for top spot in Conference A is much tighter.
Only three points separate Glasgow and second-placed Munster, with the Scottish side facing a tricky run-in that includes Ulster, Leinster and Edinburgh. “The tough run is really good for us,” says Rennie. “This time last year we were 20 points clear and there was not a lot of edge about us.
“The previous three teams we played apart from Zebre were third in our conference and us getting points has increased the gap between us. We have some tough games going into the play-offs which is good for us. We are excited by that and if we are good enough we will qualify top. If not we will still be in the mix somewhere.”
So is Rennie correct? If he is, then Leinster certainly need to watch out. They clinched top spot in Conference B even earlier than Glasgow last year. Leinster have been assured of a home semi-final since the start of March, knowing that regardless of how they get on in the final weeks of the Guinness PRO14 season, they will host a knockout game on the weekend of May 17/18.
Matches for Leo Cullen’s team against Benetton and Ulster, both right in the hunt for a Finals Series spot, as well as the aforementioned Glasgow, could serve as the perfect tune-up for the latter stages in Europe and domestically.
But with nothing on the line beyond individuals pushing for selection, the challenge of finding that cohesion under pressure will not be easy.
With last season being the first under the current format of six teams qualifying for the knock-out stages in the Guinness PRO14, we have limited data to decide whether last year’s Warriors were part of a greater trend or simply an aberration.
Thankfully, there is another league with a similar set-up: the French Top 14, where the top six qualify for the play-offs, with the top two qualifying automatically for the semi-finals, and seeds three to six then playing an extra game to join them.
The most obvious difference is that in France the semi-finals are played at a neutral venue, reducing the advantage earned by the top two, but the results in recent seasons still make for interesting reading.
Last season Montpellier finished top of the pile, even resting some key players on the final weekend having already opened up an unassailable lead in the table.
They had no problem seeing off surprise package Lyon in the semi-final, but then had no answer against Castres at the Stade de France. Christophe Urios’ side only qualified for the play-offs on the final day of the regular season, but proceeded to knock off Toulouse, Racing and then Montpellier on their way to the Bouclier de Brennus.
A year earlier it was La Rochelle who finished well clear at the top only to lose a heartbreaking semi-final. Clermont finished their campaign with a victory to secure a semi-final spot, and then went onto win the second league title in their history.
The same is true in 2015/16 – Clermont this time finishing top and losing their first knockout game to Racing who took the title – and in 2014/15 when Toulon came first but Stade Français came through the barrage to go all the way.
You have to go back to five years to the Toulon Galacticos for a team who managed to finish the regular season top of the pile in France and go on to win the title.
Could that be a case for momentum? Others might use the term battle-hardened, or simply in-form, but there certainly does seem to be a benefit to playing must-win games in the closing stages of a regular season.
Clearly that does not mean we should rule Leinster out this year. As Ulster found out on Saturday, Leo Cullen’s team still know exactly how to win pressure games.
And yet for Dave Rennie and Glasgow, perhaps the challenge of securing top spot in Conference A over the final three rounds of the season will restore the edge they need to finish the season celebrating at Celtic Park.
The Guinness PRO14 Final is one of the most entertaining games in the rugby calendar and takes place in Glasgow’s Celtic Park on May 25. Tickets start at just £25 for adults, £1 for kids. Visit www.pro14rugby.org/finaltickets