Ospreys rollercoaster ride forces change of direction
Former No 8 Ryan Jones put in first-rate second row performance in a thrilling encounter with Exiles, says Eddie Butler
I must apologise. I began preparing this column with the intention of setting the scene for today's Heineken Cup games: Biarritz v Ulster, Leicester v Scarlets, Perpignan v Treviso and Wasps v Glasgow.
But Friday night's encounter between the Ospreys and London Irish was so enjoyable I may struggle to write about anything else. If today's action is half as good as that match, won 27-16 by the home team, we shall be in for more treats.
I don't suppose Ryan Jones fell to his knees in praise of the Ospreys' selection policy when he was picked in the second row to face Irish, but if he was anxious about his future as captain and No 8 of Wales, he disguised it pretty well. His performance in the No 4 shirt, the one that normally comes with a set of donkey ears sewn on, was outstanding. His side gathered winning points for themselves and denied a losing bonus point to their opponents.
The Ospreys had nearly beaten Toulon with 33 per cent possession and it seemed to chime with them that if primary ball-winning was an issue, at the lineout in particular, then they could make a virtue of mobility and the exertion of pressure in defence. Jones gave away a couple of penalties in time-honoured fashion for squirming into a position on the ground that delayed the exit of the ball, but he roamed and pounced and tackled and hit rucks with a vengeance, all part of the shuddering hits that reduced the game almost to a standstill in the closing minutes.
If there is something for him to consider in his change of role, it may be that as he arrives at the early series of breakdowns from the second row a little later than from the back row, any tendency to slow play down is easier to spot. Perhaps, with little rugby under his belt this season, he merely needed a breather every now and again.
With Jerry Collins in the bin for a flying dive over a ruck, an offence that made anything Jones did look cherubic, the Ospreys took the ball into a huddle and offered to induce apoplexy in every official at the International Rugby Board by trying to run the clock down with 300 seconds remaining. Luckily, the referee Peter Fitzgibbon of Ireland remembered the brief that this was decidedly not on and found a forward too weary to stand, penalised him and handed the ball back to London Irish.
That left the visitors trying to run from their own 22 with as much left in their limbs as the home team. This was a game kept going on fumes, every fluid ounce of petrol having been burnt in the cut and thrust of the opening hour. Rarely in these times of being able to play on and on, way beyond the 80-minute mark, does exhaustion reveal itself so manifestly, but this was a game that knocked itself out heroically.
It would be prosaic to say that the difference between the teams was the hook on Ryan Lamb's penalty, for it was so much more uplifting to see the poetry in the motion of James Hook, playing his third match since recovering from shoulder surgery.
As the debate rages as to whether he will remain an Osprey in February or become a Catalan import at Perpignan, Hook did the simple thing and played. Not in the No 10 shirt that is one reason why Perpignan may nab him, but at No 12, where he gave huge weight to the argument being propounded by his No 4, that if you are good and willing the number on your back is not very important.
If Hook wanted to impress any future French employers and persuade them to dig deeper into the reserve amassed for their foiled raid on Dan Carter, he could hardly have done more. He made the early try for Tommy Bowe, sucking defenders towards him and then thrusting one aside with his trademark hand-off. After that he generally settled into his place alongside the central Andrew Bishop. Hook sparkles but Bishop is fast becoming the most dependable feature of the Welsh rugby landscape. In a country of little constancy, dependability is a priceless commodity.
Every time the Ospreys looked a little stretched, Bishop was there to make the tackle that restored shape and order. If the Welsh region are at last going to take their place among the elite of Europe, it will be because they have Bishop in the centre and the ever-conscientious Adam Jones as the cornerstone of their scrum.
Having said that, they would be in no position to make a challenge for the top without Shane Williams on the wing. He scored a try of customary daring and cheek, chasing a kick, and sidestepping even as he was gathering the ball. He might have scored another but his attempt to hurdle Topsy Ojo took a little pace off his race to the line.
Of course this was only the first leg. The teams will meet again in January, and, if Chris Hala'ufia and George Stowers are pitched once more against Collins and Marty Holah, it will be worth going the extra mile to Reading to witness it. The back row provided four more reasons why 30-plus players were pulped and at a standstill by the end of play in Swansea.