Going to South Africa without any of our Welsh squad members, and none of our upcoming under-20 internationals, always looked like it was going to be a task well beyond us. Unlike the other regions, the Ospreys chose not to tell their supporters the full details of the squad taken, but even allowing for possible undisclosed injuries, the team selected looked designed for a wet and windy evening in West Wales, rather than a game on a firm track at the altitude of Joburg.
It was quickly apparent that the Ospreys plan was to attack with no width, and predictably the big South African defenders handled our attacking plan with total ease, as very little variation was offered. The forwards did, however, look capable of mixing it with their counterparts, even though they got the rough end of some bizarre officiating at the scrum, and faced an interpretation at the breakdown that was always going to favour our more expansive and athletic opponents. The score at half time should have been closer, but unfortunately the excellent Burger Odendaal tore our midfield to shreds, and it was no surprise to see Kieran Williams, who was obviously struggling, being pulled shortly after half time.
The second half was sadly not as competitive as the first, despite a couple of well taken tries, as our usual defensive problems on the road re-emerged and ensured the Lions won at a canter.
The forwards were manful throughout. Both the locks went the full 80 minutes and gave as good as they got and there was another excellent cameo from Harry Deaves. There can be no doubt Booth has spent his first two seasons building a competitive squad of forwards, with sufficient depth to enable us to compete upfront even without our six front line Welsh squad forwards. The back division resources can unfortunately only be described as a bit of an incoherent mess, and unless his third season starts to build a younger and more athletic backline it is hard to see how progression can continue. None of the backline on show Friday night can say they gave a decent performance, other than perhaps the late call up from outside the original twenty-three, Josh Thomas. Rhys Webb continues to flash moments of sheer excellence, but it is obvious that approaching 34 years of age, and after close on 15 years at top level, with multiple serious injuries over that time, he cannot manage anywhere near a full game at high pace. Yet such is the yawning gap in quality behind him that he has to stay on the pitch for longer than he should. Dan Evans, for so many years a try scoring machine at this level, who beat opponents with ease, is also approaching 34 and has visibly lost several yards from his pace. His positioning and kicking game is still strong but he no longer can provide any attacking threat or offer any recovery speed to aid the scramble defence. It is hard to understand why Max Nagy, who looked so promising in the autumn, was not given the opportunity to learn on a fast track in a game we were always realistically going to lose. Much the same could be said of the strange original selection to exclude Josh Thomas for the slower and more static 37-year-old Stephen Myler for a game where goal kicking was always going to be irrelevant to the result.
The impending departure of the attack coach, and the need to find a permanent defence coach, gives us the chance to recalibrate the squad. Booth's expertise in selecting recruiting and coaching forwards is obvious to all. It must be equally obvious to all, from the evidence in front of us, that these skills do not extend as far behind the scrum. Despite a regular flow of possession, our backs struggle to create many line breaks and convert very few of those. Our lack of bonus points, rather than number of wins, will probably, at the end of the season, cost both a playoff and European Cup qualifying place. The lack of tries and inability to score much more than twenty points in any game are facts that cannot be hidden from. Nor can the fact that we are easily cut apart away from home in the midfield and backfield and concede try bonus points in virtually every away fixture, with most of those scores coming from distance.
Resources are of course finite, and it has to be asked if too much money is being allocated in the playing budget to forward depth, and not enough to key positions behind the scrum. Hopefully, we can maintain our forward depth and the new attack coach will have sufficient judgement and contacts to find young athletic backs, who can bring our back play up to the standards of our forward play, both in attack and defence. Natural annual roster churn, allied to release of some of our weaker backs, should help finance the changes needed. If that is insufficient and no additional investment is forthcoming, it may sadly be necessary to sacrifice some of our forward depth, to enable us to become more competent, deeper, and athletic across the back division.
Dogs chasing cars do not prosper over time, and neither will pro teams who throughout a season struggle to score more than twenty points a game and regularly concede long range tries in open play. There is much to ponder, but it will be very disappointing if the Osprey Brains Trust have not already reached this conclusion, and are already taking steps, within the financial parameters they have, to rectify our very obvious issues.