Eleven days and counting. Sale, the English champions, pitch up in Dylan Thomas country a week this Friday for a Heineken Cup game against the Ospreys packed with enough classic potential to draw a 15,000-plus crowd to the Liberty Stadium. It seems most of the Principality will be watching, not all of them driven by a sense of national solidarity.
"We're quite aware of the fact that everyone hates us," said Lyn Jones, the coach of the Neath-Swansea conglomerate. "It was party time in Wales when we went to Ulster last month and had 40 points put on us." Eh? Sorry? Just run through that again. "You only have to watch the television and read the papers to discover what people think of us," Jones continued, warming to his unexpected theme. "We've lost two games this season and had a kicking from everyone." So there we have it. For one night only, Charlie Hodgson and Jason Robinson will have more friends in the valleys than they ever imagined.
Jones rather enjoys dipping his toes in the choppy waters of controversy, and it is perfectly possible that his brief tirade at the Recreation Ground on Saturday was a 24-carat wind-up. There again, he has reason to feel a little tender right now. The Ospreys are said to be the richest of the four Welsh regions: they certainly have access to more of the folding stuff than the Llanelli Scarlets or Newport-Gwent Dragons and, as a consequence, they have more big-name players on the staff. These privileges bring uncomfortable pressures of their own, hence the management's appointment of Kevin Hopkins, the former Swansea centre, as director of rugby in response to fierce and widespread criticism of the team's early-season performances - a move considered in many quarters to signify a clipping of the head coach's wings.
There was more stick flying around late last week when Jones named his side for the visit to Bath, where victory would give the Ospreys a 99 per cent chance of making the semi-finals of the EDF Energy Cup and grabbing themselves an even bigger slice of shekel pie. Where were the hair-bear props, Duncan and Adam Jones? Where were Ryan Jones and Justin Marshall and "Goldenballs" Gavin Henson? All rested. Bath, badly weakened by injury, could hardly be said to be in the best shape to offer meaningful resistance, but the visitors were at far greater risk than they might have been as a result of their coach's selection.
As it turned out, Jones came up trumps. Just. The Welshmen made it through the tape with the help of three tries, two of them of the sucker-punch variety, and a flurry of drop goals. Shaun Connor played a blinder at outside-half; the young midfielder James Hook looked as precociously gifted as everyone says he is; the pack scrambled as though their lives depended on it when the Bath forwards cranked up the heat after the interval. At one point, the penalty count was 19-5 in favour of the home side - "I make it 18 by the Swansea lot to one by Neath," grumbled one curmudgeonly chronicler of the game, as myopically partisan as ever - yet the Welshmen held firm. "We budgeted for those penalties," Jones said, apparently in all seriousness.
Now comes the fun and games. "I was hoping to have the team for the big matches to come clear in my head by now, but it hasn't worked out that way," Jones admitted. "There is no A side or B side at this club, no split between this group of players and that one. As a result, there are going to be a lot of upset people around the place over the next few days. I'm in the business of creating competition for places, and performances like the ones we saw from some of the players today push that process forward. As ever, I'm in a position of being damned if I do and damned if I don't. We'll take a look at the options and make some decisions."
Bath have precious few options at the moment. Their most influential forwards, Matt Stevens and Steve Borthwick, are among the long-term injured, and while the likes of Olly Barkley and Shaun Berne expect to be fit for this week's Premiership match at Saracens, they remain unable to make real sense of the pivot position. Matthew Perry was press-ganged into the service at the weekend and while he made a far better fist of it than some others dragooned into performing the role down the years - Jeremy Guscott almost expired with embarrassment against Saracens some seasons ago, while Iain Balshaw famously attempted six drops at goal during one of his occasional flirtations with the No 10 shirt, each of which missed the posts by a greater distance than the last - the midfield missed more beats than a one-handed drummer.
Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, felt the game could, and should, have been won anyway. He had a point. Bath turned around 18-9 down, having conceded an opening try to Johnny Vaughton in the left corner and another to the quick-witted Hook down the right, but established complete control up front in the second 40, largely thanks to a virtuoso performance from the diminutive England hooker, Lee Mears, who "operated under the radar", to borrow Jack Rowell's striking description, and made a thorough nuisance of himself.
But a wonderful finish from the former Springbok wing Stefan Terblanche, who tore into the wide blue yonder from a turnover in his own 22 and sidestepped Nick Abendanon for good measure before touching down at the posts, allowed the visitors to absorb two tries in three minutes from Tom Cheeseman, the young Bath centre. The travelling supporters celebrated noisily. Someone likes the Ospreys, it seems.
Bath: Tries Cheeseman 2; Conversion Walshe; Penalties Walshe 4. Ospreys: Tries Vaughton, Hook, Terblanche; Conversions Connor 2; Penalty Connor; Drop goals Connor, Terblanche, Hook.
Bath: N Abendanon; I Davey, T Cheeseman, J Maddock, D Bory (M Stephenson, 40); M Perry (M Mangeolles, 74), N Walshe (capt); D Flatman (D Barnes, 52), D Ward (L Mears, 40), D Bell, D Smith (P Short, 49), D Grewcock, A Beattie, J Scaysbrook, C Goodman (J Faamatuainu, 54).
Ospreys: S Terblanche; R Mustoe, T Selley (S Parker, 63), J Hook, J Vaughton; S Connor, J Spice; P James (capt), B Williams (H Bennett, 61), A Millward (C Griffiths, 63), L Bateman (M Powell, 74), I Evans, L Beech (A Wyn Jones, 47), S Tandy, J Thomas.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).Reuse content