High time for Ospreys to spread wings and fly

Holley thinks Welsh side are close to fulfilment – but first they must tame Tigers
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The Independent Online

You can afford to be strident on your own website. "Never forget who you are" is the banner slogan on OspreysRugby.com. Which is sound advice, when taken literally, but what will it count for at Welford Road today when the Welsh region, barely out of nappies in their seventh season, meet the Leicester Tigers, that fearsome fusion of ancient and modern?

"Leicester have taught us to be more streetwise," said Sean Holley, the Ospreys' head coach. "They've been going a long time, their fanbase is huge, their marketing and recruitment are excellent. They're perennial winners of tournaments. I think there's a mutual respect between players and coaches. I'm not saying we want to become Leicester; we are the Ospreys. We've got to spread our wings now and fly."

The mutual respect ran thin when Holley and his Tigers counterpart, Richard Cockerill, exchanged angry words outside the Liberty Stadium dressing rooms after last year's second Heineken Cup pool meeting, with Leicester on the way to finishing runners-up. Holley's assistant, Jon Humphreys, had publicly accused Tigers prop Julian White of gouging – erroneously, it turned out, though Martin Corry was eventually cited and banned for a similar offence. "Humps was in the toilet when the briefing was done," Holley jokes.

Cockerill remains unimpressed. "Clubs will deal with things in their own way," he said. "We don't cite, we let the officials deal with that side of the game. All we're interested in is playing rugby. We're a very trad- itional club. What happens on the field stays on the field. I don't think walking into press conferences and talking about things concerning the opposition is right. You'll never hear us complaining about the physicality of other teams."

Holley's recollection is of frustration at "a lack of control from the officials when you just want a good, clean fight and may the best man win". The truth is big tournaments come down to decision-making in marginal moments. Leicester's eight English titles and two Heineken Cups inevitably give them an advantage but Holley is convinced that the Ospreys – yet to go beyond the last eight in Europe – are catching up.

"It took Leinster 14 years to win the Heineken Cup and it took Munster a few too," Holley said. "I can reflect back on a one-inch decision on Jonny Vaughton not scoring at Gloucester [in 2007] or two missed chances under the posts at Welford Road last season; even back to 2004-05 in Munster when we got turned over in a scrum on their line. The best teams take those chances and if you don't, you're not going to get what you desire, which is a home quarter-final.

"Over the last two years there has been a realisation that we are good enough. We've got Grand Slam-winners and previous All Blacks [Marty Holah and Jerry Collins in today's XV]. It's just about applying ourselves better. I said I sensed a new air of determination in pre-season, and I saw it at half-time away to Glasgow two weeks ago. We'll find out about it again at Welford Road."

The score stands at 4-2 to Leicester in competitive fixtures, and Tigers have not lost at home in 13 months. Cockerill believes that the "grind and intensity" of the Premiership are better preparation for Europe than the Magners League. Yet this may be the right time for the Ospreys to swoop.

Leicester's paucity of tries – two in five matches this season – is not a problem in itself, but they have struggled to generate momentum after the tackle. The Ospreys may be lacking Gavin Henson on his unpaid leave but can capitalise on quick possession with Holah, one of the world's best on the floor, and the hugely promising fly-half Dan Biggar feeding a quartet of Lions backs: James Hook, Tommy Bowe, Shane Williams and Lee Byrne.

"We have to believe that we can go on from last year and win at Leicester," said Holley. To do so would be a significant change in the Welsh side's notion of "who they are".

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