What is it with the Ospreys?
April 6, 2010
Ryan Jones - the captain of the ship © Getty Images
The question's hardly new, but then we're still no nearer an answer. What is it with the Ospreys?
Google 'Ospreys + enigma' and you'll get 9,800 hits. This is admittedly a team that has included Gavin Henson for most of its history and there may, for all I know, be some reason why articles about Elgar also reference ornithology, but that still seems quite a lot for a word that doesn't pitch up in too many other contexts. And you can be sure that the publicity around the coming weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final away to Biarritz will give that total a substantial push towards five figures.
At one level the Ospreys are the great success of the Welsh experiment with regional franchises, now into its seventh season. While the other three have struggled to represent more than a continuation of the clubs that came before, the Ospreys are neither entirely Swansea or Neath, but something a little bigger than the sum of its parts. Which makes it all the more frustrating that their team is precisely the opposite. They are a formidable assemblage of prime talent that is nowhere near fulfilling their evident potential.
Among their ranks, there's a clutch of Welshmen with two Grand Slams to their name, eight current British & Irish Lions and two former All Blacks that any team in Europe might want. The shortlist for this year's Six Nations Player of the Year consisted of four Frenchmen and two Ospreys, wings Shane Williams and Tommy Bowe. Yet once again they find their season on the line, and the odds against them. Securing a best runners-up spot is better than not progressing at all in the Heineken but has become a bad habit - three years in a row now (and they only lost out on tries in 2007) with the last two leading to ugly quarter-final exits away from home.
The Magners League table makes them look like strong final four contenders, but that may be illusory given that their next three matches are away to Ulster, Leinster and Munster in that order. As well perhaps that a Heineken Cup place, the bare minimum expected of them, was more or less secured by that late and highly unconvincing victory over the Scarlets on Good Friday. A school report card would classify them without question as 'could do better'.
Is it the coaching ? It is now two years since the Ospreys management decided, after a season that brought tangible reward in that memorable Anglo-Welsh final mullering of Leicester, but also the abysmal Heineken exit at Saracens, that Lyn Jones was not the man. They gave Sean Holley responsibility without power last year, while this season saw the introduction as overlord of Scott Johnson, whose credentials were based entirely on his performance as an assistant. You can't say they've gone forward since Jones left.
Is it the way in which players move back and forward to the Wales squad, having to cope with the differing demands of club and country? There is an argument that says one reason the admirable Dragons have stepped up over the last few months is that they've stayed together as a unit while other squads have been dispersed on international duty. There's the Lions hangover as well.
All fair points, but the trouble is that exactly the same applies to Leinster and Munster, who have won three of the last four Heinekens between them, have home quarter-finals at the weekend and occupy the upper echelons in the Magners. That's the competition - and the standard to which the Ospreys must aspire.
Or might it be something wrapped up in their success in transcending historic roots? Most rugby writers have a basic club allegiance, although it is something one should only advertise with discretion. If we didn't it is not likely that we'd have been interested enough in rugby to want to write about it. My team is Swansea. That has, to an extent, transferred to the Ospreys.
All other things being equal, I want them to win and would be delighted if they won the Heineken. But I can't pretend that I'll care as much this weekend in San Sebastian as I did at the same stage nine years ago when the All Whites played Leicester. I strongly suspect that my Neath-supporting colleagues echo those feelings. And while it is a classic journalistic trap to extrapolate one's own emotions into wider opinion, I know it applies to a lot of other people with All White or All Black roots.
I'm certainly not saying that there are not fans who are passionate about the Ospreys, still less that the players do not care enough. And collective passion by itself will not turn a bad team into a good one. It might, though, make a good team slightly better. There is no doubt that passionate mass attachment to an identity is a huge plus for a team. Munster may be the most obvious case, but I'm equally reminded of it every time I go to Northampton. One reason I love visiting Franklin's Gardens is that it recaptures what rugby felt like when I first watched it as a child in Wales, with large crowds whose investment in the outcome is an expression of a deeply-rooted collective identity.
Northampton have also managed to upgrade their ground without losing the intimate, cockpit quality of the best club rugby venues. That isn't something you get at the Liberty Stadium, well-appointed though it is. The Dragons official who spoke of having the best ground in Wales wasn't off his head. Objectively considered Rodney Parade is a dump. But, like Lansdowne Road in its last years, it has an atmospheric edge that modern all-seaters lack.
Identity takes time - as teenaged New Zealand Super 14 franchises are finding out. Merged teams have accomplished comparatively little in Australia's National Rugby League. The semi-jokey attempt to designate their catchment as 'Ospreylia' shows that the Ospreys are aware of the issue. In the meantime, and it could be a long time, they're struggling in relation to clubs whose roots are organic rather than genetically engineered. Not necessarily fatally so, but it does not help. And at this level in club rugby, against the very best opposition, you need all the help that you can get.