The Ospreys’ European season officially ended on Sunday but truthfully it was over long before. Qualification for the last 16 of the Big Boys Cup was never expected, but it had been hoped we would be good enough to scrape into one of the spots for the last 16 of the secondary competition. Unfortunately, our failure to take kickable opportunities to secure losing bonus points in the home matches, and Bath getting two points from the cancellation of their difficult away fixture at top club La Rochelle, meant there is no European knock out rugby for us this season.
The selection sent to Sale was one that was never going to come close to challenging the home side. Such is our injury situation, that with a short turn around to the next home URC match, we had to see this as a selection that gave Toby Booth a chance to assess players, rather than as a serious attempt to be competitive. A difficult situation was made even worse by having to play a centre at outside half for the majority of the game, following the early loss of Josh Thomas.
One player who passed his audition with flying colours was Harry Deaves. He is certainly a player with the explosion and energy to improve the middle part of our squad, which in all honesty has too many players who don't have the physical tools to compete with the other teams in the URC, let alone Europe. Another to impress with his physicality was Dewi Lake, whose throwing was much improved, although perhaps helped by Sale not competing against the throw in the way Racing did the previous week.
Again, effort cannot be faulted but yet again, on the road, the defence pretty much fell apart. Some of the individual tackling technique was desperately poor, particularly in the backs, and we got carved up in the outside channels with ease. Why it is considered a good idea from the 9 to shoot out of the line when we have such little covering speed in key defensive positions at 13 and 15 is a mystery. Whoever gets the defensive coordinator role has a big task on his hands. We seem so narrow that it appears we are defending one or two men short.
In terms of attack our opportunities were limited, but again we completely bombed two opportunities, just before the half and in the final 10, that it looked easier for Dan Evans to score that not to score. On limited possession these chances have to be taken and made the result a bit more palatable.
The list of absentees that would have made a difference to the 23 for Sunday's game speaks volumes. A complete team that would have been far more competitive of Nagy, Cuthbert, North, Watkin, Giles, Anscombe, Webb, Thomas, Parry, Francis, AWJ, Rhys Davies, Lydiate, Tipuric, Jac Morgan along with Will Griffiths, Brad Davies and Jack Regan were all unavailable. There is no way that with those front-line players missing we could have beaten Sale, but equally there was no way our defence should have been so easily exposed, and so many tackles fallen off. The middle of our squad is weak, and it is going to need young players at the bottom to quickly fill it out, and Toby Booth must ensure he does not fill the squad with mediocre or declining players to act as bed blockers.
Other pro teams in Europe have far stronger squads than us and the bottom end of their squad are likely to be stronger than our middle. Even if funds are limited to only a couple of top end squad signings, we must accept that all pro sports franchises continually churn their squad, and diamonds in the rough can be found at reasonable cost to help build the depth that is so obviously missing.
At the moment we have a medium-term project that has been blown off course by injuries to so many important front-line players. If there is a benefit, it is that it has very clearly shown up the issues with the middle of the squad and exposed the lack of experience and specialised coaching staff available to take pressure from the Head Coach.