Only the Ospreys will know for sure how much their principled stand in suspending Gavin Henson has contributed to their stuttering start to the Heineken Cup. Two try-less matches and the faintly ludicrous recall of Henson to the bench yesterday tell of a region struggling for form, though five penalty goals by Daniel Biggar, one of the younger standard-bearers of Welsh rugby, were enough for the win.
French Catalonia has rather more history behind it than Ospreylia, and Perpignan's men in blood-red and gold scrapped in ferocious fashion, collecting three yellow cards to match their ignominious effort at London Irish last season. They also showed flashes of verve and dash beyond the Ospreys' grasp, but for the most part it was ugly stuff. Both Ryan Jones, the Ospreys captain, and Ian Gough, the replacement lock, appeared to complain of gouging with gestures towards their eyes, and the Ospreys coach, Sean Holley, referred obliquely afterwards to "marks around our fellows' eyes... this doesn't belong in our game".
The attention beforehand centred on Henson and the Ospreys directors' programme notes (unsigned), which were a page-long explanation of the region's "core values... as a rugby team and an organisation". They pointed out that the osprey – yes, the bird – is very loyal and always puts its family and nest first. It was a clear message to and about the perma-tanned Wales centre, whose argument with the region's coaches had cost him a two-match suspension. Not quite so clear, though, when James Hook suffered a back spasm and withdrew yesterday. That and a host of other injuries "forced" the Ospreys, as a press statement put it, to "invite" Henson back. The RSPB may have been impressed but the WRU are in a fix, arguing with all four regions, who have refused to release players until five days before the first autumn Test on 8 November.
Henson was confined to the bench throughout, where he must have been tempted to hide his eyes. Ospreys' forwards were at full strength but operated in fits and starts. Perpignan led 6-3 after the opening quarter, with two penalties by Jérôme Porical replied to by Biggar, who turned 19 on Thursday. The 20 minutes before half-time were stop-start, another penaltygoal each for Biggar and Porical and all-round niggle up front. A punch by the Ospreys prop Paul James laid out Marius Tincu in the 31st minute (the hooker soon recovered) but went unpunished by a card.
A clean break by Ian Evans at the start of the second half carried on by Huw Bennett lifted the crowd, but the Ospreys were held up on the line and the ball shot hopelessly out of the side of the resulting scrum. Shane Williams moved to scrum-half briefly in an attempt to add inspiration, and Biggar, in front of the posts, levelled the scores at 9-9 after 55 minutes.
Where the Ospreys scored was in the close-quarter wrestling by the lock Alun Wyn Jones and back-rower Filo Tiatia. Biggar made it 12-9 in the 66th minute, and there was a yellow card for Perpignan when Guillaume Vilaceca failed to roll away which gave Biggar another successful shot with nine minutes remaining.
Dan Carter, Perpignan's All Black recruit, who is due to arrive in December, will be available when these teams meet again in southern France in the new year. Ospreys will hope to have bucked their ideas up before then.
Ospreys: L Byrne; S Williams, T Bowe, A Bishop, J Vaughton; D Biggar, R Webb; P James (D Jones, 52), H Bennett (R Hibbard, 71), A Jones, A W Jones (I Gough, 68), I Evans, R Jones (capt; T Smith, 79), F Tiatia, M Holah.
Perpignan: J Porical; A Plante, F Sid, C Manas, J Candelon; D Mele (N Durand, 10), C Cusiter; P Freshwater (K Pulu, 55), M Tincu (G Guirado, 55), N Mas (capt; Freshwater, 65), O Olibeau (B Guiry, 68), R Alvarez Kairelis (G Vilaceca, 55), J-P Perez (V Vaki, 68), D Chouly, G Britz.
Referee: W Barnes (England).Reuse content