Hard Core Welsh

The current Ospreys backline aren’t exactly “no-stats superstars” – Shane Williams has scored 58 international tries and Dan Biggar has kicked 300 points this season – but they’re a long way from the Galacticos of Phillips, Hook, Henson and Byrne.

Looking ahead to the upcoming Pro12 Grand Final between Leinster and the Ospreys, a quick review of the Ospreys’ Heineken Cup pool games is very educational. 

They were badly hampered by the absence of 62-times capped Welsh second row Alun-Wyn Jones throughout the pool games; but probably more critical was the pre-match loss of Adam Jones against Treviso in their away game. They ultimately shared the spoils 26-26, and were lucky to get the draw. In hindsight, that was the kill shot.

For the record, they finished third in their pool behind Saracens and Biarritz, conceding five tries to the latter at Parc Aguiléra in their last game, when their qualification chances depended on Treviso gaining an unlikely victory away from home at the Saracens.

Things had looked much brighter early on in the campaign. The Ospreys had given Saracens a real run for their money in front of 41,500 spectators in Wembley in early December. That five-try, 31-26 spectacular, in which Ashley Beck announced himself with two tries for the Ospreys, was a cracking performance and should have set them up for a win in the return game the following week. However, a 13-16 loss, to which only 7,000 Ospreys fans turned up to support their team, spelled the end of their challenge. A review of the game shows that Beck very nearly made the difference as Saracens held a rampant Ospreys backline scoreless for the final 18 minutes of play.

The first choice Ospreys team has had a settled look about it since the end of the Six Nations. However, aside from injuries, it is a team which almost picks itself since last September.

We spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of their pack in the preview of the Pro12 semi-final against Munster – and boy did they live up to the hype! – but that game also showcased an under-rated backs division.

Rhys Webb played against Munster three times this season and scored in every game. The 23-year old has been capped once for Wales, but there’s a bit of a queue forming behind Mike Phillips and the Lions shoo-in isn’t going anywhere fast.

It’d Take Two Men To Replace Mike Phillips … So Get Two Men

Behind this pack, coach Steve Tandy has developed the talents of the hot-tempered showboat Rhys Webb, and tempered his Henson-esque excesses of pique. Webb has buckets of talent and the cocky scrum-half strut that winds opposition fans up something rotten. However, the real deal togs out for the big games: Kahn Fotuali’i, the Samoan scrum-half. Replacing Mike Phillips is a huge ask, but Fotuali’i was perhaps the best scrum-half of the RWC11 group stages … and given that he went head to head against both Phillips and the South African eminence grise, Fourie du Preez, and gave everyone plenty of time to compare their performances, that’s no small accomplishment. Giving a fast service to mega-booted outhalf Dan Biggar remains the priority, but he mixes it up with some very aggressive breaks and regularly links with his back-row colleagues to great effect.

The Outhalf Factory – Fast-tracking Production

There was once a fear that the outhalf factory in the valleys had been closed down. It was the Thatcher era, and swingeing cuts to traditional industries were de rigeur. Jonathan ‘Numbers!’ Davies [not to be confused with his namesake, current Scarlets and Wales centre JJV Davies], then outhalf for Llanelli and Wales and the face of Welsh rugby, felt the lure of the Northern Code and signed professional forms for Widnes in 1989. He left a devastated landscape behind him, which the Welsh union tried to fill with Lilliputians like Arwel Thomas and the prosaic Pontypridd points machine Neil Jenkins.

Dan Biggar belts over his millionth point. The Mole saw him kick a penalty from the about a metre inside the touchline on the halfway against Leinster in the RDS, either last season or the one before – one of the three or four best kicks I’ve ever seen. HE’S GOT THE MEGABOOT ON TODAY, SMUDDY!

In many ways Dan Biggar is the natural successor to Jenks: an awesomely reliable points-machine who doesn’t fill the ideal of a Welsh outhalf as depicted by the magic triptych of Cliff Morgan, Barry John and Phil Bennett. Their careers have a number of similarities too: Jenks played his first international as a 19-year old against England in January 1991, while Biggar debuted less than a month after his own nineteenth birthday in November 2008, booting over four kicks against the Canadians. Jenkins was omitted from the 1991 World Cup squad for the more exciting Mark Ring [recently seen as coach to British & Irish Cup finalists Cross Keys], just as Biggar has been passed over for selection by Gatland for more rounded players like Stephen Jones, James Hook and the mercurial Rhys Priestland.

Biggar’s scoring statistics are frightening: at  22 years old, and after just four seasons of professional rugby, he has already broken the 1000 point barrier for the Ospreys.

Bosh And Becks

After a luke-warm appraisal of Ashley Beck‘s talents in the preview to the Pro12 semi-final against Munster, The Mole was informed in the Comments section that we’d under-rated the young No12. We had.

He was the biggest threat in the Ospreys’ backline, although it was his more experienced centre partner Andrew Bishop who had been swotting up on his video analysis, crashing between O’Gara and O’Mahony on the flanker’s weak left shoulder to dot down under the sticks.

Ashley Beck is a rangier player than the Big Bopper Jamie Roberts – he weighs about 10kg less and doesn’t have the sheer power of Dr Bump. However, he has runs very clever lines and is a well-rounded distributor … if Andrew Bishop is a cut-price Conrad Smith, Beck might just be a bargain Will Greenwood.

Beck is a tall, rangy 22-year old, whose try-scoring efforts have curiously all come in pairs: a double against Saracens in the Heineken Cup before Christmas, a double against Benetton Treviso in the same competition after Christmas and another double against the Italians a couple of months later in the Pro12. We’ve described Bishop before as a “cut-price Conrad Smith” and will stick to that: he’s a tidy, tidy No13 with good skills, good spatial awareness and a very clever defensive game. What he lacks in athleticism and spark he pretty much makes up for in football and experience: despite being just 26 years old, he has already appeared in 170 games for the Os.

Roy Batty, Ickle and Gunther

With Tommy Bowe recuperating from surgery, Hanno Dirksen has nailed down the right wing berth for the season run-in. Dirksen isn’t quite electric – despite the Rutger-Hauer-in-Blade Runner shock of blond hair – but he is a frenetic, aggressive winger who knows his way to the try line. Opposite him on the Farewell Tour That Never Ends is “Ickle” Shane Williams, the IRB’s International Player of the Year in 2008 [14 tries in 12 tests in a season will do that for you] and the Welsh record try scorer with an astounding 58 tries in 87 tests. Williams is 35 years old now and has already played his last game of test rugby, but even now he’s still got the spark. He has been a true pleasure to watch for many many years, a little genius of a player. The rugby world will be poorer without him.

Full-back Richard Fussell has moved from his original wing position and is not anybody’s idea of a textbook No15. He’s sort of small, not too physical, doesn’t have a big boot … but the lad can carve up the pitch like he’s playing sevens if the game opens up. Fussell, Dirksen and Williams form a physically slight back three, but all of them have real top-end pace, with Fussell and Williams being consistent broken field threats.

There is no doubt that the entire Leinster squad are well aware of the challenge posed by this Ospreys team; the Welsh outfit have already done the double on the table-toppers in the regular season. Having discarded the much vaunted ‘Galacticos’ and introduced hard-core Welsh talent, coaches Tandy and Humphries would love to claim the scalp of the European champions and prove that Wales’s Grand Slam was not only merited, but a harbinger of better days ahead for their four regional teams at European level.

 

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