Friday 26 May 2017

Ospreys aiming to take Munster way to the top

Ospreys' players James Hook, Tommy Bowe and Lee Byrne celebrate last year's Magners League final win over Leinster - they face Munster in Saturday's semi-final.
Ospreys' players James Hook, Tommy Bowe and Lee Byrne celebrate last year's Magners League final win over Leinster - they face Munster in Saturday's semi-final.
David Kelly

David Kelly

It seems every 12 months that there's some sort of talk about the Ospreys having reached a pivotal crossroads in their eight-year history.

Instead, the annual audit of their fortunes perennially surveys an outfit that just keep going around in circles.

When they deservedly trumped Leinster in the Magners League Grand Final last May, most pundits expected that this would be the prime time for one of the game's great underachievers to kick on and maximise their extraordinary roster of coaching and playing talent.

Certainly, the Ospreys expected to kick on. Typical of Welsh rugby, though, hubris swiftly intruded.

"We did see last year as a watershed," head coach Sean Holley says. "We want to be able to hold the champions tag, the favourites tag and we haven't quite been able to do that. We're still sitting comfortably with an underdogs task, so there's still work to do there.

"In fairness, a bit like Munster, our group was savage in the Heineken Cup. We almost knocked each other out physically really. It was all about snatching that away victory.

"We led in Toulon with four minutes left, we led in Munster on 65 minutes and we were still in it going to London Irish, but we let ourselves down with our poorest display.

"We're hoping for an easier draw next year as we really want to make it into a home quarter-final. Our aim was to get into the top four and defend the champions tag proudly. It hasn't been easy, but I don't think any side would fancy playing us really."

Both Munster and the Ospreys are experiencing a severe dip in fortunes. This season's fifth renewal of a fixture which regularly produces rancour and discord -- think Mike Phillips versus Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell's reckless red card from this term alone -- was hardly on the top of either side's agenda.

"The results are really close and I think there's a healthy respect between players, coaches and supporters even though there's been history in the past," says Holley. "Both sides' form probably hasn't quite been there and that adds bit of intrigue.

"The team that shows the most courage and determination, maybe not flair or skill, will win the game."

Whatever about Munster, there has been too much turmoil within the Ospreys' ranks this term. Aside from the squad's unconvincing title tilts, unrest among the Welsh 'galacticos' has resulted in Phillips and James Hook scampering for the exit door.

How the Ospreys react to these high-profile voluntary departures remains to be seen. They may not have to search that desperately to find strength where others see weakness.

When Ospreys' internationals were on Six Nations duty -- Ireland's Tommy Bowe is one of 15 internationals at the club -- they managed to accrue an impressive 19 from 20 available Magners League points with their shadow squad.

When the stars returned, the tally was a miserable four from 20.

Last weekend, they put in a truly miserable effort in Aironi that ironically secured their berth in this week's semi-final, and then only after Hook's 76th-minute penalty chance was moved forward 10 metres by the referee.

Ospreys' future already exists under their own noses. They speak reverently of developing a rugby culture like Munster's; starting with a cheque book is the wrong way to go about it.

That's why Ospreys are likely to persist with their up-and-coming stars this weekend, so Phillips and Japan-bound Jerry Collins, whose dumb yellow allowed Munster to thieve victory in Swansea in the final minute last month, may not necessarily start despite being available for selection.

Shane Williams' recovery from a knee injury may only see him make the bench.

Holley knows that hearts and minds must be seduced before you can start throwing cash around like confetti.

"For us it's about trying to get a culture we want," says Holley. "We lose players for long periods, three times a year and it's not conducive to a level of consistency we're looking for.

"We're looking for a set of values that will stand our region in good stead for a long time to come, not just the short term. Our board of directors and management and players have really bought into this.

"And the players notably who have put pen to paper to stay are the ones we should be concentrating on, not those who are leaving. Shane Williams. Adam Jones. Alun Wyn Jones. Ryan Jones, Jon Thomas, Dan Biggar, Tommy Bowe.

"These are the guys you look to. Then the young guys coming through, starting the future from within our own system with Ashley Beck, Ryan Bevington, Justin Tipuric. That's what we're edging towards, it's a bit Munster-like. But what's wrong with that?"

Seeing their destination is one thing. Getting there is the tricky bit.

Irish Independent

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