After three hours of granite-hard rugby spread over two games, there was not so much as a gnat's crotchet between the teams: not a single point, still less a try, and certainly not anything resembling cordial relations. When Leicester left the Liberty Stadium on Saturday night they were blown towards home by great gusts of accusation, and if Julian White, the international prop freshly recalled to the England squad as a result of the Matt Stevens drugs scandal, did the things members of the Ospreys management claim he did during the course of this Heineken Cup pool decider, he and sporting liberty will soon be strangers.
White was publicly accused of gouging: not on a scale that might have qualified him for a role in King Lear, but sufficient to have left a couple of Ospreys tight forwards with livid marks around their eyes. Richard Hibbard, the Test hooker, was one of them, and his gestures towards the officials during an increasingly fraught second half alerted Sean Holley and Jonathan Humphreys, his coaches, to the issue. Holley and Humphreys went after the alleged miscreant afterwards – verbally rather than physically, which was probably as well – and left their audience in no doubt that they expected the 35-year-old Devonian to be brought to account.
"We won't pull our punches on this," said Humphreys, who, in his previous life as a front-row troglodyte, would have found himself – um – eyeball to eyeball with White on many occasions. "There were a couple of incidents with Julian in our first match up at Welford Road, but we didn't make a big thing of it then because we didn't want to go down the citing line. But there are people in our dressing room tonight who are upset with him, and it's disappointing – particularly disappointing when it happens with the same guy. These incidents are becoming too prevalent for our liking."
Holley indicated the match tapes would reveal all. "There is some footage, apparently," he said. "We didn't follow it up at Welford Road but we'll certainly do so here because we have a duty to eradicate this from our game. Are we going to let it happen and have everyone going for each other's eyes? We don't want that, surely."
When Holley and his opposite number, Leicester's acting head coach Richard Cockerill, subsequently met up in the stadium lobby, their exchange was of the "full and frank" variety. "Our players don't do those things; we're an honourable rugby club," Cockerill snapped as he loaded his kit bag on to the bus. Like everyone else, the England manager Martin Johnson included, he must wait for the citing commissioner, Denis Templeton of Ireland, to decide whether that sense of honour should be called into question.
There was no dispute over the power and aggression of White's scrummaging, which lay at the heart of Leicester's success in staying sufficiently close to Ospreys to win the pool and qualify automatically for a place in the quarter-finals. If no one expected the Midlanders to throw the ball around with gay abandon – as they put precious little width on the ball in unopposed training these days, they were hardly likely to back themselves against James Hook and Shane Williams – everyone anticipated some ferociously committed work at close quarters. And so it came to pass. White bossed the set pieces, although Paul James was never completely subdued, while Martin Corry and Jordan Crane worked overtime on the floor.
The tryless encounter at Welford Road in October might have been a blueprint for the tryless one here: what few five-point opportunities there were went to the Welshmen. They had a couple of half-chances while Toby Flood was serving 10 minutes in the sin bin – Gavin Henson, operating at full-back following Lee Byrne's late withdrawal, might have crossed just before the interval had he backed his pace in a Byrne-like fashion – and but for some superior scavenging from the Leicester flankers Tom Croft and Ben Woods there would have been a score after the break.
But for all the hard driving of the Wales captain, Ryan Jones, who delivered a performance of Six Nations quality, and the imaginative running of Hook, who looked quite an act, Ospreys drew a blank, as they feared they might. "We have a lot of potent, dangerous players, but we lack composure in the final third of the field," admitted Holley.
Whether Leicester will be lacking a tight-head prop when they next play in this competition remains to be seen.
Ospreys: Penalties Hook 5. Leicester: Penalties Hougaard 3.
Ospreys: G Henson; S Williams, T Bowe, A Bishop, J Vaughton; J Hook, M Phillips (J Nutbrown, 74); P James, R Hibbard (H Bennett, 60), A Jones, I Gough, A W Jones, R Jones (capt), M Holah, F Tiatia (T Smith, 76).
Leicester: G Murphy; M Smith (J Murphy, 52), S Rabeni, T Flood, S Hamilton; D Hougaard, J Dupuy; B Stankovich, B Kayser (G Chuter, 79), J White (M Castrogiovanni, 64), M Corry (capt), M Wentzel (B Kay, 63), T Croft, B Woods, J Crane.
Referee: C Berdos (France).Reuse content