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Monday Morning Quarterback View - Inside the Tigers' Den

With four wins out of their last five games, including two Welsh derby wins and a double over French champions, Montpellier, the Ospreys travelled to Welford Road to face English champions, the Leicester Tigers. In the home fixture, the Ospreys were guilty of indiscipline and a failure to convert pressure into points and with a place in the Round of 16 up for grabs, this match had the ingredients to be an absolute cracker. The Ospreys named a strong 23 but were without Rhys Webb and Ethan Roots who were both out injured and Tom Francis who was absent for a family matter. The Tigers also named a reasonably strong 23.

The match kicked off and the Tigers were quickly into their rhythm, earning an early penalty that Pollard converted to open the score 3-0. Would the indiscipline of the home fixture come back to haunt the Ospreys again?

As the opening ten minutes wore on, it was the Ospreys who were on top and when they won a penalty in the Tigers’ half, captain Tipuric pointed for the corner and Owen Williams delivered a pin-point kick to set up an attacking lineout. The Ospreys needed to be patient with their driving maul and as Rhys Davies spun the defenders out of the way, Dewi Lake crashed over for the game’s first try, O Williams converted, and the Ospreys now led 3-7.

Restarts have been hit and miss for the Ospreys recently and the kick-off was certainly a miss as the Ospreys players allowed the ball to bounce and the Tigers gained possession and won a penalty that they kicked to the corner. Strong, resolute defence by the Ospreys pack held up the Tigers’ driving maul, but some incorrect spacing in defence left too big a hole and Van Portfleit scampered through for the try, Pollard converted and Tigers led 10-7.

Tigers thought they had a second try in quick succession as a lovely inside line from Simmons cut open the Ospreys defence. He raced for the line and seemed to evade the desperation tackle of Michael Collins and the referee awarded the try, which Pollard converted. The new law change now allows TMOs to check things up until the game re-starts and the TMO came in to say that the ball had in fact not been grounded so the try was chalked off. However, Tigers were under penalty advantage and Pollard converted to increase the score to 13-7. Just as the kick was being taken, the Ospreys suffered another injury as Cai Evans was forced off to be replaced by George North, and O Williams took over the kicking duties.

He had a chance to cut the gap to just three points, but his attempt sailed wide, although just three minutes later he had another chance that was successful and after 20 minutes the Tigers led 13-10. Yet another injury blow for the Ospreys saw Lake limp from the field, to be replaced by Scott Baldwin.

The Tigers began to threaten the Ospreys line again and again but superb defence from the away side saw them repel attack and attack and just as the half was drawing to a close, the Ospreys worked their way up the field and O Williams kicked another penalty to level the scores 13-13.

The second half began with the Ospreys failing to clear their lines and Tigers were on the attack once more. Under penalty advantage, the Tigers overloaded the defence and that allowed Simmons to ghost his way over the line for a try that Pollard converted and it was 20-13 after 49 minutes.

As both teams looked to their respective benches, they threw all that they had against their opposing defence but excellent breakdown work from Reffell and great team defence from the Ospreys negated any real scoring opportunities.

Tigers were on the attack again when a speculative long pass from Pollard failed to find a Tigers pair of hands and Joe Hawkins hacked the ball up field. Keelan Giles was quickest to the ball, and he raced away from the half way line to score under the posts. O Williams converted and it was 20-20 after 59 minutes.

A couple of Pollard penalties in quick succession put the Tigers 26-20 ahead with 11 minutes left on the clock but those final minutes were all Ospreys as they battered away at the Tigers’ defence. As the clock ticked closer to 80 minutes, the Ospreys were camped on the Tigers’ try line. Kieran Williams thought he had scored twice but the referee and the TMO denied him. It looked like Tigers would concede a penalty try for a couple of high looking shots in the act of saving a try but the TMO waved them off.

The Ospreys scrum was well on top and finally their dominance paid off as the referee showed the Tigers’ loosehead prop a yellow card. The Ospreys were really pushing for the try and won penalty after penalty and finally the dam broke when Jac Morgan forced his way over from the base of a ruck for the try. The TMO was called up and eventually awarded the try giving O Williams the chance to win the game for the Ospreys. He took his time and slotted the kick, the crowd booed and the final whistle blew on a famous victory.

This was a big result for the Ospreys. Getting a win at one of English rugby's toughest fortresses shows the progression the team has made under Toby Booth. Despite falling 10 points behind the team remained composed, and the patience and technique shown in the final minutes, with the clock in the red, indicated a maturing team that believes in the process it is going through. Qualifying for the knockout rounds of the Big Boys Cup for the first time in 13 years was the well-deserved reward. The pressure absorbed by the team in defence was outstanding as the 6 versus 7 day turnaround ensured the home side had the edge in terms of energy and go forward at the breakdown, but sheer will power and the relatively small size of the Welford Road pitch helped in manning the barricades and staying within a score to mount the final assault on the home side’s line. The team will probably play better and lose, but it is doubtful they will get many better wins given the situation.

An anxious few days wait saw us missing out on a home quarter final on points difference, with Leicester's run away win in Clermont, that cost Jono Gibbes his job, turning out to be the difference between fourth and fifth, as Toulouse and La Rochelle recorded their expected wins and the Sharks got a late try bonus point in their defeat by Quins.

It was not until Sunday evening that our last 16 opponents were determined, and it will be current English premiership front runners Saracens that we will go up against, following their losing bonus point defeat in Edinburgh. That match will be in London on the first weekend of April. Both sides will contribute heavily to the Six Nations, so it is impossible to gauge which players will be available to their respective sides and there will be very little time to integrate returning international players.

The next few months will be a serious test for Booth and his coaching team with 14 players missing. The return to fitness of the likes of Owen Watkin, Dan Lydiate, Will Griffiths, Ethan Roots, Sam Parry and Harri Morgan is going to be vital and there could be a number of players in the 23 during the international break playing for their contracts. These will be difficult fixtures and the hope is that the players left behind can rise to the challenge.

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