The Ospreys completed their mini tour of South Africa and despite returning pointless, gained first-hand knowledge of how deep and powerful South African rugby is at this level, and how hard their teams are to compete with on the hard dry tracks of their homeland.
The performance at the weekend was far superior to the week before and against far superior opposition than the week before. This was expected given that the returning Team Wales contingent considerably strengthened the playing ability available. However, against a quality Stormers side that had been playing together and training together for several months, it was never going to be possible for our Team Wales members to integrate quickly enough, on such limited preparation time, to mount a realistic challenge for victory.
The mini tour was therefore all about learning about our players and our systems. A number of those learnings were confirmations of what should have been known already. On the positive side our scrum showed it could stand up to the power of Springbok level scrummagers, and that is no mean feat given what the Springbok scrum has done to international sides in the last few years. Both Alex Cuthbert and Keelan Giles provided the level of wing defence that has been so sadly lacking in most away games. Neither surrendered the touchline and consequently a very good Stormers side did not pierce us in the wider channels, as lesser teams have done so easily in previous games. Indeed, the whole defence marshalled itself relatively well throughout and the three first half tries were all down to poor individual attempts at tackles, and lack of foot speed, rather than schematic issues. Jac Morgan was little short of a colossus and when you can stand out in these circumstances you are some player.
We struggle to get into a rhythm in attack which means we cannot go more than a few phases without turning the ball over. Even when we breach the gain line playing off the nine, we seem unable to flood players quickly into channels, and the opposition quickly resets. This means we have little option other than to kick, and at the weekend we kicked badly and inaccurately to compound matters, with their fourth try coming from a very poor penalty kick that should have secured us territory in their half, rather than ending up behind our posts.
It is difficult to put a finger on why the attack has been such a problem for us this season. In commentary the point was made that not only are we in the bottom reaches of tries scored in the URC but also at the bottom of line breaks. Not having our two most potent attackers in North and Tipuric for the entire season has been costly. It would be simple to say a new attack coach will turn things around, but perhaps too simplistic. Our attacking breakdown work offered the Stormers too many opportunities and as a result we struggled to play at any kind of pace. Gareth Anscombe looked like a player who has spent months training at a Team Wales camp rather than playing. The speed of the Stormers’ half backs was sensational and getting players in those positions with speed who can challenge the slower players on the inside makes any attack difficult to defend. Max Nagy’s cameo was very encouraging, and we hope to see a lot more of him. The progress of young backs like Nagy, Protheroe, Hawkins, Harri Morgan, if we can get him off the treatment table, plus the rumoured addition of a promising outside half should aid the foot speed and potency of the back division, and if this can be allied to the return of Tipuric and North and a new attack coach, we may have a chance to start to look dangerous and more athletic in the open field.
The final run will commence in three weeks. A top eight position looks highly unlikely, and the Scarlets’ ability to score tries and bonus points means that even with more wins than them, it will take a massive effort to finish above them in the table for the Welsh Shield. Such an effort is not beyond us as we have shown we can be a very hard side to beat at home. What is far more important for the future though is that we find a way to create an attacking system that can deliver tries, and recruit and develop players with speed, skill, and athleticism in the key positions in the backline. The foundations of the forwards are there so the rebuild must now focus on the attacking weakness behind the scrum.