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Midweek Special Monday Morning Quarterback View

After a stunning away victory at the home of the French champions, Montpelier, in the HCC, the Ospreys returned home for the Boxing Day URC visit of local rivals, the Scarlets. With both teams in fine form, this set the scene for what could be a Christmas cracker of a match.

There were late changes for both teams – Ospreys captain Tipuric suffered a back spasm in the morning of the game and was replaced by Ethan Roots and Scarlets’ Sam Lousi was absent for the birth of his child.

The first incident of note in the match came in the fourth minute after a break from Roots and a pass off the floor from Webb. The Scarlets’ 7, Lezana went into a tackle on Rhys Davies and the TMO intervened. The tackle was determined to be foul play and following the guidelines on direct head contact, Lezana was correctly shown a red card with Davies going off for a HIA. The resulting penalty was kicked to touch but the Scarlets’ defence stood firm. The Ospreys’ set piece was always likely to dominate even against an eight-man Scarlets pack but against a seven man pack it looked like a long afternoon was in store for the visitors.

The Ospreys began to dominate territory and possession and won a penalty when the Scarlets were guilty of sealing off. The Ospreys went for the corner with a superb touch-finder from Owen Williams. Setting up a driving maul from the lineout, the Ospreys were awarded another penalty for a Scarlets player coming in at the side of the maul. This penalty also went to the corner and again the Ospreys set up a maul before Webb released the ball to Alex Cuthbert who crashed over from 5 metres for the opening try of the match. O Williams was unsuccessful with the conversion and after 14 minutes, the Ospreys led 5-0.

After more Ospreys pressure, the Scarlets conceded a penalty right in front of the posts and the Ospreys called for a scrum. Down to 7 forwards, the Scarlets wisely decided to replace one of their wingers with a forward putting the pack back to 8 forwards. The Ospreys won another penalty and this time, under penalty advantage, O Williams threw a lovely pass out to Luke Morgan who slid in for the second try of the match. O Williams converted from the touchline to extend the lead to 12-0 after 25 minutes.

Some kick tennis with the ball ended with Scarlets outside half, Costelow, running the ball back into the Ospreys defence and he collided with O Williams. The Ospreys turned the ball over and quickly went wide and L Morgan raced for the try line but a superb diving tackle from Fifita prevented a try. The TMO came in and the referee reviewed the Costelow/O Williams collision. This time, the Scarlets player had stepped into the Ospreys player and again, following the guidelines, the tackle was correctly mitigated down from a red card to a yellow card much to the chagrin of the Scarlets players and supporters in the crowd. The Scarlets were awarded a penalty and both teams were down to 14 players. The Scarlets went to the corner and scored a try through their big No5 Kalamafoni, and Patchell, on for the HIA receiving Costelow, slotted the conversion to make it 12-7 after 32 minutes. What looked like would turn into a simple bonus point win was now back in the balance with the Scarlets back in the game.

A sliced clearing kick to touch gave the Ospreys a lineout on the Scarlets’ 10 metre line and after several midfield rucks, Webb saw a gap and went for it. He raced away from the desperate Scarlets defenders and scored the third try of the game which he also converted, and the Ospreys led 19-7.

The Ospreys should have been able to extend their lead after another penalty was kicked to the corner but a turnover in the air from Fifita gave the Scarlets the chance to retain possession and see out the remaining seconds of the first half.

The first part of the second half saw the Scarlets raise their game but they met a stone walled Ospreys defence led by the superb Jac Morgan and Roots with everybody around them understanding their role and O Williams not afraid of making big hits from the 10 position. The strong defensive system was however again let down by another individual error which has been such a crucial factor in so many of the close losses this season. Under no pressure, a careless pass from Rhys Webb was intercepted by MacNicholl, and the error compounded by a poor attempt at a touchline tackle from Michael Collins meant the Scarlets were back within a score – 19-14 after 49 minutes.

The Ospreys extended their lead when O Williams slotted a penalty goal after a Scarlets player failed to roll away after the tackle and this extended the lead out to 22-14 after 52 minutes. The Ospreys almost scored the bonus point try when Webb made another sniping break, but he was held up over the line. Another chance went begging when a cross-field kick to the unmarked Max Nagy evaded him as the ball bounced into touch.

The strong bench of the home side was, however, able to close the game down in the final quarter as the fresh front-five forwards upped the intensity, and the strength of the set piece and the ability to maintain outstanding defensive organisation resulted in another close range score from Sam Parry for the bonus point try, that O Williams converted to make it 29-14 after 69 minutes.

The final play of the game was a scrum inside the Ospreys half with just 2 seconds left on the clock. The referee awarded the Ospreys a penalty and a quick tap from Morgan-Williams at last saw some decent back line passing when Hawkins, with a beautiful piece of distribution, put Collins through a gap and he sent Kieran Williams racing in for the final score. The conversion hit the post, but the game was won 34-14.

A 5 pointer was welcome relief for a side camped in the bottom half of the table. The game plan has been simplified from the wide attack that Fussell devised in the early season and is far more suited to the strengths of players at the coaches' disposal. The defensive system looks as good as any top side and is now only being let down by individual errors. Whoever has taken over defensive responsibilities from Darren Edwards deserves some commendation.

The attack has gone back to being more limited, but it is at least getting over the gain line, allowing us to control territory, and any thought that you do not need a powerful carrier at 12 must surely now have been confined to the dustbin. The arrival of Owen Williams has certainly given control and it may need two big centres to play with him to maximise the benefits he brings. Walsh is too good an attacking player to not be involved in the game plan and it may be time to see what he has to offer from the 15 position. Max Nagy has been excellent under the high ball but his kicking out of hand and distribution skills are not quite there yet. Given that none of our wingers not called Cuthbert look comfortable defensively under the high ball, it could be worth using Nagy's athletic skills on the wing and bringing a second playmaker who can kick out of hand into the fullback position, as the coaches try to build more variation into the attack without straying too far from what the players available to them are good at, as we did earlier in the season.

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