When the game went professional the Celtic nations, in particular, found it hard going. Wales decided that regions were the best route, but it was a tortuous process. In some ways it still is.
Uniquely, Wales's 2008 Grand Slam was built, with a helping hand from the odd Cardiff Blue and Llanelli Scarlet, around one team. Warren Gatland, the New Zealander who had only been in the employ of the Welsh Rugby Union for a few months, quickly realised what others had not, that the Ospreys would be a one-stop shop. For the opening game of the Six Nations he would field 13 of them against England at Twickenham.
Flying higher than a kite, the Ospreys could be closing in on a season of seasons. They are a hybrid of Neath and Swansea and, given the traditional enmitybetween the two, it was a bit like forcing Dracula to bed down with a stake. Today they play Saracens at Vicarage Road in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup – the first time they have qualified for the knockout stages of Europe's blue riband – and next Saturday meet Leicester in the final of the EDF Energy Cup at Twickenham.
"The pleasing thing is, we are putting in good performances and achieving a level of consistency that wasn't there before," Lyn Jones, their coach, said. "In the past, when the Ospreys came back from international rugby they were all over the place.
"Different coaches had different ideas, but this time the changeover has been quite easy. Obviously the selection of so many Ospreys has reflected well on what the club has been tryingto achieve."
The perception is that there are still haves and have nots in Welsh rugby, and that the Ospreys, who play at the LibertyStadium in Swansea, have a lot more than most. Who else, for example, could afford to have both Mike Phillips (he has a knee injury and is out for the season) and Justin Marshall, two world- class scrum-halves, on their books? Certainly not the poor old Newport-Gwent Dragons, who qualified for the Heineken Cup in 24th place with a play-off victory over Calvisano and then disappeared without trace.
"When we moved from clubs to regions it was a very difficult time," Jones said, "but I think the merger of Neath and Swansea was always going to have an advantage in the long term. This is not Neath in disguise or Swansea in disguise but the Ospreys. It's not a question of money but the result of hard work, and you wonder how big can it be.
"People know where they want the business to go. In Newport, they haven't got a clue what they're doing. Maybe they're suffering a hangover from when Pontypool were a power. There is a problem in that Newport comes first, Gwent second, and unless they are prepared to address that today they willhave no chance tomorrow. They have no ambition and are not producing anything."
The Ospreys, meanwhile, take their stellar squad (Gavin and Shane et al) to Watford for a second meeting with Saracens in two weeks. They defeated them 30-3 in the semi-finals of the EDF Cup in Cardiff.
"Whichever team turns up in the best mental and physical state will win," Jones said. "Saracens try to play an attractive style, which is great for a Guinness Premiership side. It will be a bloody good game, perhaps better than the last time."
Jones has been to Vicarage Road before, and it was an ill- fated mission. "Ten years ago I'd just been reinstated as the Neath coach and they put 60 points on us. Basically back then we were a bunch of headers. This time round it's groundbreaking stuff for us."
Strangely, not a season goes by without Jones's future being brought into question. He is in his fifth year with the Ospreys, and despite their success the speculation continues.
"I'm in negotiations over my contract at the moment," said Jones, a former Neath flanker – his father, Peter, was a tearaway for Aberavon, who were even more detested than Swansea. "It's what's best for both parties. It's up to the Ospreys what they want to do. I've been here from day one and the most satisfying thing is to see the players grow up and improve.
"Just look at Shane Williams. When he joined Neath he was a part-timer and the second- choice scrum-half. Now he's one of the best wings in the world. It's just fantastic. He's taken everything with both hands."
If the Ospreys beat the Sarries they will have a Heineken Cup semi-final in Cardiff; if they beat Leicester on Saturday they will return down the M4 with the EDF Energy Cup. Twelve months ago the same teams were in the same final and the Tigers won a classic, 41-35.
"We conceded four tries in the first half, something we'd never done before," Jones recalled. "We learnt some lessons. It will be fascinating. The best of Wales against the bestof England."Reuse content