Flight of the Ospreys adds silver to gold

The feelgood factor: One week on from the glory day and domestic pace-setters show the revival has deep roots
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The Independent Online

Admittedly it requires a touch of the Walter Mittys, but for the Millennium Stadium read the Gnoll and for Wales read the Neath-Swansea Ospreys. With some high-profile heroes on duty, such as Gavin Henson and Shane Williams, it is easier to see the Ospreys in a national context than it is for the Gnoll to resemble an inter-national arena. That really would be a flight of fancy.

Still, the little ground, which has been the home of Neath RFC since the 1870s, was fit to bursting yesterday. Seven days after Wales's grand finale to the Six Nations, the feel-good factor was still feeling remarkably good.

In the Celtic League - Wales, Ireland and Scotland's answer to England's Premiership - the Ospreys have been the team to catch, and last night they clinched the championship with a bitterly-fought 29-12 victory over Edinburgh. Henson, who has signed a four-year contract with the Ospreys, did not disappoint the capacity crowd, scoring 22 points with a try and conversion and five penalties from the silver boot.

Formed from the painful reorganisation of professional rugby in Wales from clubs into regions, the Ospreys, a shotgun marriage between bitter rivals, have bedded down and are getting on famously.

"Everybody sacrificed a lot two years ago when the merger was forced through," Lyn Jones, the coach, said, "so winning some silverware means a great deal. There are egos in South Wales rugby, and some people didn't like the idea of losing their power base. It was quite nasty at first and hard work dealing with all the politics, but we've stuck at it. The Celtic League is improving and standards are rising. There are lots of good players around and it's a tough competition to win."

Although the four Welsh regions - the Celtic Warriors were sacrificed last year - have not made a lasting impression in the Heineken Cup, Jones believes they have made a significant contribution to Wales's rise to fifth in the world rankings, a place above England.

"Playing at a regional level has coincided with more professionalism, which means better coaching and improved fitness, and that has rubbed off on the Wales team. The results are there for everybody to see." And what a result. On the day Wales beat Ireland to complete the Grand Slam it is estimated that 200,000 people gathered in Cardiff to eat (the turnover in restaurants was calculated at £15m), drink (two million pints were swallowed) and be merry (a baby boom is expected in the Principality in nine months' time).

The bookmakers say that £1.25m was paid out on winning bets, and the accountants say Super Saturday provided the biggest one-day boost to the Welsh economy, bigger even than the opening day of the 1999 World Cup.

The WRU say their new debenture tickets, which cost £6,000, are selling faster than hot-cross buns and will raise nearly £5m. Every penny is welcome. After a restructuring of their debt, the WRU owe the bank £55m, of which £45m is to be repaid over 35 years. They are looking for a sponsor for the national ground, but if it was left to the fans the Ruddock Millennium Stadium would do nicely.

The osprey, incidentally, was adopted after the bird was featured in a stained-glass window at the old Swansea clubhouse. "I think there are a couple of ospreys in Scotland and one in North Wales," Jones said. "Birds of prey appear at our training ground and I tell the players they are ospreys. It gives them something to look up to."

The WRU are in favour of a so-called global season, an attempt to integrate the fixtures of the northern and southern hemispheres, and proposals are being dealt with by the IRB-appointed accountancy firm Deloittes. There is a growing voice for the Six Nations to be played in April-May. As it is, Wales open next year's championship against England at Twickenham on 4 February and conclude at home against France on 18 March.

"England will be gunning for revenge as they try to re-establish themselves as the top team in the northern hemisphere, and we mustn't forget they are still the world champions," Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, said. "Before we even start to think about our title defence we have to focus on some very big autumn Tests. If we can perform well against South Africa and Australia we should have some confidence to take with us to Twickenham. The real bonus next season is that we get to play three games at the Millennium Stadium.

"If the support and the atmosphere is anything like it was in Cardiff for our wins over England and Ireland we'll take a bit of beating."

Back in Neath, the town where the WRU were born 125 years ago, the expectations were greater than anything dreamt of by Charles Dickens. And not just for the Ospreys.

Neath, one of the famous clubs pushed to the margins by the bigger picture, also hold a handsome lead in the Welsh Premiership. This features semi-pros on £10,000 a year or less, although the young stars have a chance to graduate to the regions. As history demands, the league is fiercely competitive in its own right. Tomorrow, Neath play Aberavon, a tribal clash that would make Celtic v Rangers look like a friendly.

Jones isn't sure whether to support the Welsh All Blacks, as Neath are known, or the Wizards from just down the M4. He played wing-forward for Neath before becoming their coach, a successful spell which led to his role with the Ospreys, and his late father, Peter, was an outstanding flanker for Aberavon.

Last night Gavin and Shane bade an emotional farewell to the Gnoll. Next season they will be playing at the new Morfa Stadium on the outskirts of Swansea. "It looks like a mini Millennium Stadium," Jones said. In that case, a suitable home for another award-winning team. Ruddock, of course, was on hand here not only to praise the Ospreys and remind the world that the Wales Under-21 team won their own Grand Slam, but to parade the Six Nations trophy. Wales's cup runneth over.