The facts are stark. According to rugby statistician Russ Petty, the Ospreys’ 44-0 loss to the Scarlets was only the fourth time in their history they had been ‘nilled’.
It was the third-largest defeat since their inception 16 ago and led their talisman Justin Tipuric – someone not prone to melodrama – to exclaim that it was by far his worst night in an Ospreys shirt.
As captain, and someone who has to make a decision on his future imminently, he questioned the character of the squad in a heartfelt plea.
Yes, the shellacking dished out by their rivals across the Loughor was nightmarish but if you look at their next five fixtures, there is no easy respite for a side lacking in confidence. It could get worse.
For starters, they face a Dragons side growing in belief and resilience at Rodney Parade under Dean Ryan, before the main course of a duo of European heavyweights in Saracens and Munster.
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RugbyPass went behind the scenes with the Barbarians before their recent clash with Wales
After that, an Irish dessert of Ulster and Leinster could leave them with indigestion. Quite simply, it’s hard to know where the wins are going to come from. By mid-February their record could read: played 19, lost 18 and won one. The solitary 24-20 victory over Benetton came on October 12.
Sitting firmly at the foot of Conference A in the Guinness PRO14, those putting their heads above the parapet were downbeat in their assessment.
Carl Hogg, their forwards coach, said they had been beaten ‘in every facet, starting with energy and enthusiasm’ before trotting out well-worn adages about hard work and having to look within to find answers. For forlorn fans, empty clichés need to be replaced by firm action.
Ospreys have turned the clock back 20 years as former Swansea coach Mike Ruddock is back on the beat in the west Wales city https://t.co/SJVkX8odhZ
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 3, 2019
So how has it come to this? How have Wales’ most successful region, the winners of four domestic leagues, and a professional outfit that produced 15 British and Irish Lions in 16 years, reached such a nadir?
The reasons, as ever, are complex and wide-ranging. The Ospreys have produced Welsh icons Adam Jones, Shane Williams and Ryan Jones, but the days of complimenting them with foreign superstars of the ilk of Justin Marshall, Tommy Bowe and Jerry Collins seem like memories from a bygone era when Mike Cuddy, their former benefactor, bankrolled luxury purchases before falling upon ill-health and diminishing returns.
Yet it should also be added that the Ospreys are not paupers. They still have £5.3million to spend on their squad from the WRU, second only to the Scarlets in Wales, and have £1.9m larger kitty than the Dragons. Of course, there are sides with more money sloshing about, but it would be disingenuous to plead poverty as the sole reason for their quandary.
‘Honesty, fight, work ethic, togetherness, a good place to work… those values and characteristics are coming to the fore again’
– Allen Clarke tells @heagneyl about his determination to turn @ospreys back into a success story https://t.co/3P0IUvGxl7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 15, 2019
Injuries have undoubtedly hurt them. The marquee signing of Gareth Anscombe has been a nightmare, with the gifted playmaker ruled out for the season through a knee injury incurred in the pre-World Cup warm-up against England.
They have also been deprived of world stars George North and Alun-Wyn Jones through injury since the World Cup. Their return, especially the talismanic Jones, are much needed, but is that an excuse? They must cast their eyes enviously over at the Scarlets, who at one point were missing 20 internationals during the World Cup. Their charismatic All Blacks-bound coach Brad Mooar has guided them to ten wins in 13 by playing an enterprising brand of rugby.
To rub salt in the wound, Liam Williams – a Swansea boy – chose to return to the Scarlets rather than select a region that overlooked him as a callow youth. Then there is the coaching situation. When Steve Tandy was dismissed in January 2018 after a period where the region only won two out their first nine games, a worldwide hunt for a head coach was trumpeted. It ended at the tip of their nose when existing forwards coach Allen Clarke was installed after taking over as an interim.
Struggling Welsh region Ospreys have boldly predicted a radical shake-up happening soon to the PRO14 and Premiership leagueshttps://t.co/TsTdAFW8s7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 30, 2019
Questions over whether Clarke was at fully at ease being thrust into the head coach’s role never really abated and when Clarke was dismissed in farcical circumstances last month, James Hook and Richie Pugh were left to face the press at an organised event.
The scrutiny led managing director Andrew Millward to accuse the media of ‘hijacking’ the press conference to incredulous looks from those present. While criticism has been forthright – and some would say merited – there has been no pointed agenda against the region, only sympathy. Indeed, Welsh rugby knows four functioning regions is a pre-requisite for continued progress.
For now, leading playing operations are Matt Sherratt, the backs coach, who has already announced he is off to Worcester Warriors at the end of the season, and Hogg, the former Scotland back row and Worcester defence coach.
Earlier this month Mike Ruddock, the former Wales Grand Slam-winning coach, was drafted in as a consultant, but there has been no word as yet whether that arrangement will extend beyond January 2. This uncertainty is far from ideal and has led to a feeling that the Ospreys are rudderless and lacking direction.
The seeds of the Ospreys’ current predicament date back further. In March, there was the tawdry on-off merger with the Scarlets (and even Cardiff Blues) during the Six Nations, as Project Reset reached its painful conclusion.
It led WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips to issue a public apology to players who had feared for their livelihoods. There was also precious little transparency for the supporters about what exactly had led to such an agreement and claims that the Scarlets had instigated a takeover were scoffed at across the Loughor.
What is unequivocal is that in sport off-field disquiet rarely helps a side perform on the field and the Ospreys are a case-in-point. Players-wise, a full-strength Ospreys squad is still formidable. There are seven players with over 50 Welsh caps – Jones, North, Tipuric, Dan Lydiate, Hook, Scott Williams and Bradley Davies but beneath that, there is a notable drop in quality.
While regional ‘best buys’ Filo Tiatia, Marty Holah, Stefan Terblanche and Kahn Fotuali’i provided stability when the Welsh internationals were away on Test leave in times past, overseas recruitment has been found wanting in recent years with the likes of JJ Engelbrecht, Brian Mujati and Tito Tebaldi making little lasting impression at the Welsh region.
As for slithers of seasonal cheer, the Ospreys must be waiting to see how the WRU distributes the £35m of investment from hedge fund CVC, hopeful that pooled resources and a rumoured British and Irish League save them from their malaise.
"My boy was playing under-11s rugby and we could barely get nine or ten players to come out and play whereas with football they were scratching two sides together." @ShaneWilliams11 talks regional rugby decline with @heagneyl ???https://t.co/opEhls2mH2
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 1, 2019
On the field, thankfully, the production line at the Ospreys is still turning. Promoted from the academy, Dewi Lake, Harri Morgan, Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler and Cai Evans have joined the likes of Owen Watkin and Adam Beard in spearheading the next generation.
But the future is mired in doubt. Only 6,684 hardy fans turned up for last weekend’s derby against the Cardiff Blues in a cavernous Liberty Stadium. Some fans have talked about a reboot or the jolt that comes with relegation, but with no drop from the PRO14, the Ospreys are vulnerable and can drift listlessly unless firm action is taken by their underfire power-brokers, Millward and Rob Davies.
Priority number one is a head coach who has the vision and gravitas to drive the region forward. Any suitors should make themselves known. It cannot come a moment too soon.
WATCH: RugbyPass travelled to Brecon to see how life after rugby is treating Andy Powell, one of Wales’ biggest characters on and off the pitch
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