European Rugby Champions Cup
Ospreys look to break Anglo-French monopoly against Exeter Chiefs
Huw Richards
January 22, 2016

Ospreys have played in four Pro 12 finals and three Heineken Cup quarterfinals, so any talk of their Champions Cup tie at Exeter on Sunday being the "biggest in their history" should be halted before it is started.

But that does not stop it being pretty damned important.

It matters both to the Ospreys themselves -- it is six years since they last made the playoffs -- and in a wider context. They would be the first Welsh qualifiers in four years and also represent the most significant obstacle to this year's playoffs becoming the Anglo-French monopoly those nations' clubs evidently hanker for.

It was an outcome that scarcely seemed possible when they came out of the draw with perennial contenders Clermont, well-supported Bordeaux-Begles and upwardly mobile Exeter. The one crumb of comfort was the comparative European inexperience of Bordeaux and the Chiefs, but it was hard to conceive of Ospreys getting past Clermont, even before the hiccuping start to the Pro 12 campaign that has placed participation in next season's Champions Cup in jeopardy.

But there they are, two points clear with a game to go.

When I interviewed Steve Tandy, their hugely impressive young head coach, before Christmas he said that he wanted them still to be in the mix in the final round of games. That they are not only in contention, but in control of their own fate thanks to the late penalty which deprived Clermont of a losing bonus at the Liberty Stadium last Friday, must be beyond his wildest expectations.

A win will take them through, whatever Clermont do to Bordeaux. It certainly won't be easy -- nothing has been in a superbly competitive group in which only one match of eight, Bordeaux vs. Clermont two weekends back, has ended in an away win. The combined winning margin in all five Ospreys matches has been 38 points, an average of only 7.6 per game.

© Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Exeter are, as their position at the heels of all-conquering Saracens atop the English Premiership shows, a very good team. And they still have an outside shot at progressing. Rob Baxter may have accepted that their priority has to be nailing down that elusive top four Premiership playoff place, but any team he fields will be tough, well-organised and competitive.

And indeed one of the intriguing subplots of the match is the Baxter vs. Tandy contest, one quite possibly foreshadowing confrontations at a higher level in alternate years at Twickenham and the Principality Stadium before very much longer.

Ospreys' progress through the pool has had a horses for courses quality, but with an unusual twist to their variations of approach. They have attacked relentlessly on the road, with eight tries in their narrow defeats at Clermont and Bordeaux producing the four bonus points which have given them control of the pool.

The approach at home, where they have scored two tries in three matches but won all of them, has been rather cagier -- built around organisation, resolute defence, a smart tactical kicking game and the ability to grind down opponents as the match goes on. They trailed at half-time in all three, but have won the second halves by a combined 47 points to 6.

This is a team of resilience, staying power and composure in adversity, very much in the image of its leader Alun-Wyn Jones, whose agreement to a joint WRU-Ospreys contract this week was terrific news for both.

It is perhaps a little too soon to proclaim him, as one well-informed colleague did during the World Cup, the greatest ever Welsh forward. Mervyn Davies, Graham Price and Bryn Meredith must be, among others, overtaken to claim that one while the greatest lock title would be contested by Rhys Williams, Roy John, Geoff Wheel and Bob Norster, but he is certainly a serious contender in both conversations.

But is certainly not too soon, as Stephen Jones, both a trenchant critic and a connoisseur of top-class second row forwards, did on Twitter last weekend, to see him as the logical front-runner to lead the Lions in New Zealand next year.

He has hugely important lieutenants in the prodigious Justin Tipuric and Dan Biggar, whose maturation from good to world-class was one of the features of the 2015 calendar year. So it seemed a potentially terminal blow when Biggar was forced off in the second half against Clermont.

© Stu Forster/Getty Images

That 22 year old Sam Davies could come on, and his more traditional outside-half style prove perfectly adapted for the occasion, had echoes of the moment during the 2005 Grand Slam season when the apparent disaster of Gareth Thomas being injured with Wales behind in Paris instead paved the way for Kevin Morgan to play superbly at full-back and Michael Owen prove himself an accomplished leader.

Biggar, rightly, remains the man. But Davies -- whose failure to make Wales' Six Nations squad testifies both to Warren Gatland's focus on physical presence even in creative positions and also to the options at his disposal -- is evidence of another Ospreys strength, growing their own talent.

The difficulty the Welsh regions face when competing for talent with English and French wealth was symbolised in the first round of pool matches last season when Kahn Fotual'i, whom the Ospreys had wanted to keep but could not afford, sat on Northampton's bench at Franklins Gardens. But the benefit of his departure was that it opened the way for Rhys Webb's rapid development into Wales' most accomplished all-round scrum-half.

Not all transitions will be that smooth, and the battle for European competitiveness in the face of French and English clubs fuelled by wealthy owners and lucrative TV deals will always be an uphill one. As the historian Chuck Little has pointed out: "The greatest performance-enhancing substance known to sport is money."

But there are countervailing forces. And the Irish provinces have shown over the years that a core of locally-generated talent, with the sense of identity it generates in both team and fan-base, is among the more potent.

It will be tough at Exeter and very likely tougher still if they make the quarterfinal. A trip to Toulon or Wasps looks likely. But simply being there would be a huge boost for them, and the Welsh game generally. And they have shown that they can travel, which is no more than should be expected of a team which after some disappointing years is once more moving in the right direction.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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