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FEATURE Fledgling Ospreys offer hope with 'Gucci galacticos' long gone

Fledgling Ospreys offer hope with 'Gucci galacticos' long gone
4 months ago

Once, the Ospreys seemed to operate to the Gucci principle: “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.” They shopped at the rugby equivalent of Harrods, bringing in big-ticket players such as Justin Marshall, Marty Holah and Jerry Collins.

A decade-and-a-half or so on, the excellence of those three, the inspirational Filo Tiatia and others who donned the black shirt in that era still sticks clearly in the mind.

There were four league titles and an EDF Cup final success, with many moments Ospreys supporters of a certain vintage won’t forget, among them the 39-pass try finished off by Shane Williams against Sale in Europe, a score so good someone suggested it should be set to music.

Shane Williams
Ospreys had a side packed with Wales internationals and some star-studded imports (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

In 2007, the Ospreys jersey was the top-selling rugby shirt in Britain, while in the same year more than £1 million worth of merchandise was sold from the region’s shop at the then named Liberty Stadium. Around that time, crowds came close to averaging 10,000 for home matches.

But the belt-tightening which subsequently gripped Welsh rugby meant the halcyon days eventually ended, with the squad reconfigured and the Hollywood signings becoming a thing of the past. A headline in 2014 captured the new reality, if a shade bluntly: “From the Galacticos to Nobody Knows: How times have changed for the Ospreys’ recruitment team”.

The latest shake-out in the game on the western side of the River Severn saw 19 players leave the region last summer, including 12 internationals. With them, optimism the Llandarcy-based team could seriously compete might have departed, too. Even head coach Toby Booth, a man who does upbeat as well as anyone, had previously gone on record to speak of the goalposts moving in the Welsh game, adding: “From a performance point of view, it doesn’t make it any easier.” Along the way, there have been unsettling questions from outside the camp over the Swansea region’s future.

Nine thousand miles from home and having performed creditably for 70-plus minutes, why strain every sinew for what was left of the game? Few would have jumped on their case had they settled for a battling defeat. But no-one in the Ospreys side had read that particular script.

Yet the Ospreys are not only still here, but well into the campaign they are in the top half of the United Rugby Championship table and the last 16 of the European Challenge Cup. If it hasn’t quite been a fishes-and-loaves job by Booth and his players, it has all been more than a bit praiseworthy.

In Europe, they beat a powerful Benetton side, Perpignan and the Lions to emerge from the pool stage, with last Saturday’s success against the latter in Johannesburg especially noteworthy given the absence of more than 20 injured players.

Booth’s group headed for South Africa with nine players aged 22 or under in the match-day squad. In the back row, 19-year-old Morgan Morse packed down between two 22-year-olds in Will Hickey and Harri Deaves, while last term’s Wales U20s fly-half Dan Edwards started, with 21-year-old Iestyn Hopkins at full-back. On the bench, several of the forward options should have come with L-plates.

It would have been easy, then, for the young side to have accepted it wasn’t going to be their day when they trailed 28-17 deep in the final quarter in Johannesburg. After all, they were already assured of qualification from their pool. Nine thousand miles from home and having performed creditably for 70-plus minutes, why strain every sinew for what was left of the game? Few would have jumped on their case had they settled for a battling defeat.

But no-one in the Ospreys side had read that particular script.

Toby Booth
Head coach Toby Booth has instilled belief and spirit in a talented crop of Ospreys youngsters (Photo Tyler Miller/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Instead, Booth’s players roused themselves for a grandstand finish that saw them score 21 unanswered points to win 38-28.

The fightback said much for their spirit and the atmosphere in the squad which Booth has helped engender. He is a coach with an easy way and he knows which buttons to press, picking on form rather than reputation and not being afraid to give youngsters chances. Man-management is one of his strong points and he is able to coax performances out of players by making them believe in themselves. Adam Beard and George North quickly regained form at the Ospreys after being downgraded by Wales, while Owen Watkin has recently made it back into the national set-up after previously finding himself surplus to requirements.

Indeed, Watkin was to the fore against the Lions, scoring a try, assisting a touchdown, making a clean break and beating three defenders. Assured, mature and solid, he provided the glue in the Welsh team’s backline, complementing first North in midfield and then high-impact replacement Keiran Williams with contributions that may have been unflashy but invariably proved telling.

And it was refreshing to see him celebrating with gusto at the end. He may have 36 Wales caps on the board and played at a World Cup and in the Six Nations, but featuring for his home region evidently still means a lot to the Bryncethin product and he savoured the triumph at Ellis Park as much as anyone.

Owen Watkin
Owen Watkin’s form for Ospreys has earned the centre a recall to the Wales squad (Photo Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

A nod, too, to Deaves. Socks rolled down and with bands around his knees, he looked spent on 70 minutes after a relentlessly industrious effort at high altitude, but appearances can be deceptive, with the openside swooping for a turnover with the eagerness of a wolf scenting a lamb chop. The steal lifted the pressure on the visitors and proved a key moment, with the Ospreys going on to complete one of the season’s more improbable comebacks to date thanks to tries from Keelan Giles, scrum-half Cameron Jones and Morse.

Deaves is a player worth keeping tabs on. He wears a bright yellow headguard but doesn’t need it to stand out. Against the Lions he seemed to be everywhere at once as he ran up 16 tackles without missing, achieved a turnover, made seven carries and put in five passes and an offload. The former part-time roofer is brave and takes responsibility.

New Wales captain Dafydd Jenkins said of him when the pair played together for Wales U20s: “He’s a really good boy — humble as well. All he wants to do is play rugby and be the best he can.

“He’s great to play alongside because he works so hard and is happy to do the dirty work that needs to be done, the stuff a lot of people don’t see. He just gets on with it.”

A sustainable future for Ospreys surely looks like having youngsters such as Deaves, Morse, Hopkins, Henry and Tristan Davies at its core as players who have been developed from within and who could be around for years.

If Deaves’s tachometer was under severe strain in a workaholic display, then much the same could be said about Morse and his appetite for graft, with the teenager similarly never far away from the action.

Fellow young guns Hickey, Hopkins, Rhys Henry, Jack Walsh, Edwards and Tristan Davies, a 6ft 4in, 16st 5lb blindside who can carry, tackle, contest breakdowns and compete at lineouts, also acquitted themselves well, as did replacement prop Cameron Jones and his namesake at scrum-half.

Lewis Jones, the 6ft 8in son of former Wales lock Derwyn Jones, was among other youngsters able to enjoy the winning feeling on the Highveld.

For the Ospreys, the win augured well. A sustainable future for them surely looks like having youngsters such as Deaves, Morse, Hopkins, Henry and Tristan Davies at its core as players who have been developed from within and who could be around for years.

Harri Deaves
The bravery and work-rate of Harri Deaves (yellow scrum-cap) have been a feature for the Ospreys (Photo Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Those five and their mates got the job done last weekend despite Justin Tipuric, Jac Morgan, Dewi Lake, Morgan Morris, Rhys Davies, Gareth Thomas, Max Nagy and Nicky Smith all being on the casualty list.

Booth will know he needs the injured brigade to be restored to good health quickly, but he will also be delighted with the effort of those who tamed the Lions.

Of course, there will be bumps in the road ahead – Welsh rugby’s straitened financial circumstances make any other scenario impossible to envisage.

But the Ospreys are looking to the future, with plans to move away from the Swansea.com Stadium, which is too big for them, and find a new home where they will hope to grow their support base.

For the moment, though, they are entitled to savour their achievement in making progress in Europe and bagging a home tie in the last 16.

Under difficult circumstances, it’s been a commendable effort.

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