The expected win against the URC basement dwellers was eventually achieved, but without the benefit of a try bonus point. It was a performance that left fans and Toby Booth hugely disappointed. In many ways it summed up the problems the Ospreys have, with an unbalanced squad, heavily depleted by injuries and international calls.
The favourite tag is a rare one for Osprey sides in international windows, and it was not a tag they wore very well. Booth must be asking himself some serious questions about both his selection and tactics, unless of course they were forced by injury, which given the policy on non-disclosure at team announcements, means we cannot know if this was the case or not.
At this level there is no point trying to play off your ten when you have on the pitch players with a lack of foot speed in midfield. There is also little point in employing small quick wings, unless you have better carriers to get across the gain line, and better passing skills from midfield players to deliver them the ball in space. It was therefore a massive surprise that the Ospreys tried to play off ten as much as they did. The selection preference for Morris over Deaves suggested the game would be heavily played off nine, and this was the only time the attack looked threatening, until the very late introduction of Matt Protheroe at last gave some potency to the sterile run back game we saw before his arrival.
The defence seemed well set up from structured play, but once matters became unstructured, or the ball was turned over, the complete lack of foot speed at midfield and at full back was yet again exposed, and very nearly cost the win.
Rhys Webb was not at his absolute best, but it is obvious he understands what needs to be done when a team has to play from nine, and as in a number of our previous wins, made some great assists for two of our tries We looked like an old blue collar NFL team with a functional running game, but no passing game that gives up on the run too early. When your selection is set up to play off nine, you have to persist, because there was no chance the backs selected could ever beat their opponents one on one, or even outflank them with their passes, even against a weakened Zebre outfit. The problem with replacing Webb, in the closing stages, is that Reuben Morgan-Williams is a different type of scrum half, who is more effective for a team that wants to play side to side at speed. The final few minutes threw away the chance of an undeserved bonus point, with a complete lack of both composure and organisation close to the line. Make no mistake, failure to secure a bonus point against Zebre is akin to dropping a point on the rest of the field in the playoff race. If there was a positive, we learned from the game, it was that Rhys Henry has the potential to add to our carrying game.
We are now at the stage of the season where recruitment and retention plans become close to finalisation. It is a particularly important time for the Ospreys, as we are not only going to be finalising the playing squad for next season, but also the positions of attack and defence coach. We have in the first two years of the Booth regime developed an identity of a resilient team. A bit of a defensive identity has emerged, in that we are very intense at home, and if we survive the opening onslaught, we get better as the game goes on, particularly if we can turn it into an arm wrestle. On the road, however, our defensive identity seems to be great effort at close quarters, but incapable of defending the outside channels and backfield, thereby consistently conceding try bonus points. There is however no attacking identity beyond scoring a limited number of tries from line out mauls, scrum pushovers and flat passes close to the line from the nine. The ageing Rhys Webb has manfully carried the load, and he desperately needs some help from a new signing if we are to continue with building a strong attack off nine. The ten and fifteen positions need serious recalibration. Stephen Myler has been a superb signing who wins tight games, but can you build any kind of attacking game around a 38-year-old going into next season? Is Gareth Anscombe going to return or leave? Will the new attack coach be given the license to pick and play young raw athletes like Max Nagy and Matt Protheroe, or will he be strangled with a requirement for experience and conservatism?
With the Six Nations drawing to a close, hopefully the next few weeks will see some communication from the Ospreys to the fans about the plans for building on the resilient identity that has been established and having clear attacking and defending identities that fit the type of player we want. We should release players who do not fit that identity and aim to recruit or promote internally players who do. There is too much of a mix and match at the moment. The forward depth has been massively improved in the past two years, but the depth and variance in quality behind the scrum remains a big issue and hurdle in achieving the level of progression that is desired.