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Monday Morning Quarterback View

The European Champions Cup finally came to town with the visit of the Sale Sharks, a team that relies very much on physicality and power. The build up to the match was very emotional after the sad news of the accident to Ospreys’ hooker Ifan Phillips that ended his promising career. Indeed, in a lovely show of unity, the Ospreys warmed up wearing jerseys with 2 Phillips on the back. Everybody at TOT wishes Ifan the very best for the future.

The late withdrawal of Jac Morgan, our stand-out back row player was a disaster for us. Ethan Roots is not a natural 7 and again the Ospreys, as they have in so many matches this season allowed the opposition to dominate the first 20 minutes. Unlike Connacht who found our defence wanting in the outside channels, Sale took us on physically up the middle and found the first up tackling so soft they could scarcely believe it. Three quick tries ensued after a catalogue of errors and the Ospreys found themselves down twenty-one points without Sale really having to do that much. When the Ospreys did get some territory inevitably the chances went begging as the Sale defence looked professionally drilled and De Jaeger was too good for our lineout and maul to be much of a weapon.

It looked like a potential repeat of the Scarlets capitulation to them last season and that Sale would run up a big score with power and precision but somehow the Ospreys managed to see out the first half. In all honesty the home side had looked out of their depth in their foray into the top end of European Rugby. Tom Curry and Rafe Quirke looked quality international players driving a well drilled side towards an easy bonus point away win.

However the half time break changed the momentum of the game entirely. Whatever was said certainly had the desired effect on the Ospreys’ players as they tore into their opponents and spent large parts of that second half on the offensive and forcing the opposition to give away a string of penalties that meant they earned two yellow cards and spent 20 minutes of the second half down to 14 men.

The attacking structure of the Ospreys in the second half showed glimpses of what can be achieved when there is more momentum and speed put on the game and there is a running threat from full back. Mat Protheroe looked dangerous in possession every time with one run and an exchange of passes lasting almost seventy metres but poor decision making and passing from his supporting players killed the chance of a spectacular and much needed score. Protheroe showed he can play 15 at top level. There was nothing wrong with his positioning and he was the player who the excellent Sale defence seemed most concerned about.

The Ospreys’ scrum certainly proved itself a top-class unit at this level and was gaining the upper hand as the game wore on; as a superb pass from Webb and a brilliantly timed run tight to the touchline by Morgan broke the Sale defence and Josh Thomas who had a very decent debut at this level added a touchline conversion. Unfortunately, other opportunities were spurned. The decision to turn down a kickable penalty to make it a one score game was highly questionable and the quality of some of our passing and handling left a lot to be desired with the ball rarely being put in front of the receiving player.

So what did we learn from playing in the Big Boys cup again? Basically we are not good enough yet. However the ability to stay in a game that could have run away from us and to change its momentum showed we may not be as far away as it may appear. Our defence is a real Jekyll and Hyde at the moment, and we await news as to whether a new defensive specialist will be added to the mix. The old adage defence wins big matches was never more evident and adding a top-class defence specialist to replace the departed Pugh, in readiness for the Christmas derbies has to be at the top of the agenda. We need this defence to be consistently good, not brilliant one week and sub-standard the next. In terms of our attack it is difficult to see it progressing into a balanced attack until we can create more momentum and fast ball from the breakdown. We have elected this season to go with experienced half backs who are still quality players but no longer have top level speed. We are going to need to play to their strengths for the remainder of the season and so our attack is going to be limited, but it should be more precise; and if you compromise on speed at half back you must have compensating speed across your entire back three. Our scrum and line out drive, and a suffocating consistent defence may be enough for a mid-table URC finish, but it won't cut it at the top end where we will encounter better teams than Sale. At the end of the day it all depends on how much we are able to invest in increasing the quality of the squad and how quickly a group of young emerging players can come through as to how close we can get to the top teams in the next couple of seasons.

Next up for the Ospreys is a trip to French mega-team Racing 92 who completely outclassed their opponents in their first-round clash on Friday night. Whilst the Saints tackling at times appeared optional this will be a big ask on a fast track at an indoor stadium. It is a six day turn around so there will have to be rotation in selection and Anscombe and Cuthbert seem unlikely to feature with such a short turn around and the travelling time.

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