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Ospreys: From Welsh rugby’s Galacticos to regional strugglers

Ospreys leave the field dejected after a record defeat against Scarlets on 26 December 2019

With the Six Nations looming, regional rugby in Wales is taking a break and no side will be more relieved than Ospreys.

While Saracens have endured an amazing fall from grace because of financial mismanagement, Ospreys’ capitulation has been dramatic for very different reasons.

Sunday’s 33-6 Champions Cup defeat by Munster was not the most depressing of Ospreys’ 13-match losing streak.

But it acted as a reminder of how this region once competed with Europe’s top sides and how those battles are now a distant memory.

From flagship region to Welsh rugby’s strugglers

Ospreys finished bottom of their Champions Cup pool without a single point

This region was once known as rugby’s answer to the Real Madrid ‘Galacticos’.

It was not a term they coined or even liked, but a reference to the star-studded squad they had assembled and the success they enjoyed, including four league titles and two Anglo-Welsh Cups.

It has been a marked downward spiral over the last few years which has come to a head during this campaign.

Overcoming merger talks with Scarlets was last season’s trauma, but they at least finished as the highest Welsh region and qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup.

This season it is poor performances on the field causing concern.

Ospreys used to be the standard bearers. Now they hold the unenviable record of producing the worst start to a domestic season in the regional era with 15 defeats in 16 games.

Dragons have traditionally been Welsh rugby’s strugglers, but there is more of a feel-good factor at Rodney Parade this season with Challenge Cup quarter-final qualification achieved alongside Scarlets.

But not even Dragons have opened a campaign in such a woeful manner.

The stark statistics keep coming. Ospreys are on a three-month losing streak with the only victory coming against 14-man Benetton in the Pro14 on 12 October.

Six of those defeats have come in a Champions Cup whitewash culminating in the meek Munster loss.

So how has it come to this? The region used to boast a star-studded squad with Wales’ leading lights such as Shane Williams, Lee Byrne, Gavin Henson, Ryan Jones, Adam Jones, Mike Phillips, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb, Ian Evans and Jonathan Thomas.

Ospreys celebrate winning the EDF Energy Cup final in 2008

The same region contributed 13 starters to Warren Gatland’s opening victory against England in 2008. Compare that to now, with just five players out of 38 in Wayne Pivac’s first Six Nations squad.

Throw in overseas stars like Filo Tiatia, Marty Holah, Jerry Collins, Justin Marshall and Tommy Bowe and you had a potent mix that resulted in four league titles between 2005 and 2012.

They never conquered Europe, but domestic silverware was always on the agenda. That last trophy came eight years ago and the cracks have been papered over until this season.

That was the assessment of Wales captain and Ospreys stalwart Alun Wyn Jones, who, along with James Hook and Justin Tipuric, have experienced the highs and lows of Liberty Stadium life.

Contributing factors

There are mitigating factors with Ospreys injury-ravaged throughout the campaign.

Most sides have been affected by a growing casualty list, especially in World Cup season, but theirs has been worse than most with up to 20 players unavailable some weeks.

Star signing Gareth Anscombe missing the whole of his first season with a serious knee injury is a scenario that could not have been predicted.

Dan Evans has suffered two injuries and a four-week suspension this season

As well as unavailable World Cup players, reliable regulars such as Dan Evans, James King, Keelan Giles and Cory Allen have been sidelined.

Finances have also contributed although Ospreys have not been helped by poor recruitment.

They will point to their claim of losing almost £1m in 2018 with the restructuring of regional rugby finances, which they say wiped out the crucial middle tier of their squad.

Signings like Marty McKenzie and Shaun Venter have not plugged the gap.

Management accountability

Off the field Ospreys have also been in turmoil which resulted in the departure of head coach Allen Clarke.

This has left forwards coach Carl Hogg and backs boss Matt Sherratt to handle the day-to-day coaching affairs with the backroom staff left light in experience.

The manner in which the Clarke situation was handled has been criticised with a couple of muddled press conferences and skills coach Richie Pugh and Hook initially left to face the media music.

Alun Wyn Jones also suggested during a revealing media gathering earlier this month that people off the field had to be held to account in the same way as the players.

Ospreys chairman Robert Davies and managing director Andrew Millward

So the Ospreys board must know they also have questions to answer.

They are seeking a route out of the mire with Wales’ 2005 Grand Slam coach Mike Ruddock brought in as a consultant before being upgraded to performance director, albeit only until the end of the season.

World-class coach required

The main focus will be to find a world-class head coach for the future, who can mould a squad that still boasts talents like Alun Wyn Jones, Tipuric, Anscombe, George North, Nicky Smith, Adam Beard, Scott Williams and Owen Watkin.

Mike Ruddock (right) coached Wales to the 2005 Grand Slam which included Duncan Jones (left) who is part of the Ospreys backroom staff

South African coach Swys de Bruin and Springboks World Cup-winning backroom staff member Felix Jones have emerged as early candidates.

That quality is what Ospreys need to consider.

Completing the long-term re-signing of captain Tipuric would be a strong statement while the region are hoping to add Dragons’ Ross Moriarty to Webb, who is returning from Toulon.

However, they missed out on Liam Williams having at one point been tipped as favourites to sign him from Saracens before Scarlets won that off-field tussle.

A sprinkling of such stardust would not go amiss, but Ospreys know that must be complemented by alterations on and off the field.

Because the Ospreys are failing. Their road back to success needs to be rediscovered, and quickly.

Article courtesy of BBC Sport
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