Ospreys ready to soar

Coach's belief that side can finally fulfil European potential faces fierce test at Leicester tomorrow.
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The Independent Online

Another Heineken Cup arrives and so brings with it the usual group of punters who might just come to be classed in the mug category for piling their hard-earned on the Ospreys.

Like Jeremy Guscott, they too have been seduced by a squad which would be the envy of any club this side of Stade Français. Like Guscott, they too have added together the parts and come up with a tidy sum. Unlike Guscott, they too have not learned their lesson.

"I've backed them to win this tournament for the last two years," says the former darling of England, not previously known for his unconditional faith in all things Welsh. "My wallet's staying in my pocket this time around. It can't afford it."

As Sod, himself, happens to be the betting industry's main law-maker, Guscott will probably live to regret it. Although in the build-up to tomorrow's crunch opener at Leicester he has hardly been alone in suggesting that the Ospreys' overwhelming case is starting to wear on the bald side of "a bit thin". Ieuan Evans has told them "it's time to deliver", Jonathan Davies has wondered if "they're streetwise enough", while even the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, has been credited with an ultimatum. "You have to win your pool," says the Kiwi, who tasted Heineken glory with Wasps in 2004. "If you can get a home quarter-final, you have a chance."

Seeing as Ospreys have yet to win a pool and have yet to progress beyond the quarters, Gatland's words can be seen as typically pertinent. Indeed, for the last two seasons the Ospreys have discovered just why they are called the knockout stages. If the sucker punch they fell for at the Saracens two years ago deprived them of their senses, then the 43-9 mauling they suffered at Munster in April left them sprawling around the canvas searching for their gumshields and their dignity.

"I remember the changing room afterwards and those are the moments you don't want in your career," said Mike Phillips, the Lions No 9, at their Llandarcy base this week. "We let ourselves down as professionals. This year we've got the chance to put things right." The club's captain concurred. "That was a bitterly disappointing afternoon," said Ryan Jones "But with a new coach and some new additions this feels like exactly what it is – a fresh start."

Scott Johnson is that new coach, but when it comes to Welsh rugby he feels about as fresh as old laverbread. As the skills coach who took the reins when Mike Ruddock so famously quit his Grand Slam-winners four years ago, Johnson was inevitably a central figure in the scandal. Some still have it he was rather too central. When he eventually decided all that Great Redeemer nonsense wasn't for him, Johnson left saying he felt like Braveheart: "my back is so bloodstained". But then the Ospreys came calling in the summer and Johnson was able to forget all the backstabbing and eschew the cosy lifestyle he had forged in the United States as the national coach.

Why? In truth, he would have been fool not to. With Welsh internationals in most of the positions and All Blacks in all the others – including the recently signed Jerry Collins – and with a budget that is by far and away the biggest in Wales, and because of the English salary cap, probably in Britain too, here is a dream opportunity. As Michael Lynagh, his countryman, puts it: "Scott has a great squad playing in a great stadium – everything is in place. They have been waiting for someone to come along and convert all that potential."

But is Johnson that someone? Many in Wales are not so sure. The general consensus was the Ospreys were in need of a strong Ferguson-type hand to direct the hairdryer at all that talent with its associated egos. That never has been Johnson's way. With Wales he was the players' best friend and still seems more inclined to throw arm around shoulder. But this is his first No 1 job in club rugby and the question will inevitably be asked whether he is up to it.

Not that he hasn't already had to deal with some decidedly thorny issues. When he strolled into the Liberty Stadium, the latest – perhaps the last – chapter of Gavin Henson's strange career was unfolding and the insiders report that as the centre ummed and aahed whether top-flight rugby was really for him, Johnson demanded he stay away until he was certain to had the wherewithal to withstand the professional life. "There's 12 billion people lying in cemeteries who thought they were indispensable," is one of the Sydneysider's favourite sayings.

Then there has been the handling of James Hook. Johnson has shifted him across to No 12 and elevated the 19-year-old Dan Biggar to first-choice playmaker. In the land where Hook is regarded as the rightful heir to Barry, Phil and Jonathan that has attracted denouncements, although such has been the backline's improvement in their last two matches – wins against Glasgow and Edinburgh – those such as Guscott have praised Biggar's control. In fact, after a woeful beginning to the season, the Ospreys glamour boys have been perceived as putting it all together and of turning the corner in Johnson's new tactical direction.

"It's still a work in progress – change just can't be that easy," is the way Johnson sees it. "But people are becoming more comfortable and we're developing a style we feel will be our own. It's a long way from perfect but you've got to think we're getting closer and closer. I can tell that just by listening to the talk in the corridors and what have you. There's a commonality of language, if you like. We're not ecstatic, but we're certainly happier."

So are the fans and interestingly, some of the pundits In the midst of last weekend's first-half onslaught, Tommy Bowe cleverly, but illegally took out a defender leading to a try-making gap. In the BBC Wales studio, Davies highlighted the incident. "That's what we call being streetwise, " he said. "If you watch the Leicesters and Munsters of this world they know what it takes. Sometimes you have to win ugly."

Johnson's view on this might disappoint the critics. "I think to win ugly is to lose," he said. "You can win a variety of ways. There were aspersions cast on Wales when we won the Grand Slam in '05 that we couldn't do it playing that way. Well we did.

"It's funny, when everyone says about the Ospreys under-achieving in Europe. They said the same that about Leinster as well, and about Munster. We're a young region – set up in 2003 and it's only 2009. Look at Leicester they've been going for years. Winning becomes contagious and you get comfortable in certain positions. But theirs is just one way to win. We in the Ospreys aren't Leicester. We don't have a tradition of that type of rugby. We play a different game. That's the beauty of our sport. We don't want everyone doing the same - streetwise or not. We'd rather argue that if you do it bloody well you might stand a chance. You have to find out who you are and then be true to it."

It is why he has gallantly played down all the talk of this being a grudge match. When the Ospreys are pulled out a draw – be it Heineken Cup or Anglo-Welsh Cup – Leicester are invariably pulled out next. In the last four seasons they have played each other six times and while Leicester are leading 4-2, the series has become better known for its flare-ups and tear-ups. The enmity began when Henson broke the nose of Alex Moreno in a brutal tussle in 2005 and has rumbled along with sufficient ire to produce January's bloody instalment. That ended with Martin Corry being banned for eye-gouging and the two opposing coaches, Richard Cockerill and Sean Holley, having a slanging match in the tunnel afterwards. Rematch on, surely?

"No, I haven't sensed any animosity or needle here and neither would I want to," said Johnson. "The Welsh play at their best when they're comfortable in their own skins, trying to be who they are and not who they are not."

Certainly the atmosphere at the training ground in midweek backed up his assessment. There was not a trace of vindictiveness in either their words or their body language. While Ryan Jones talked of "keeping our composure" laughter permeated through the offices.

In another room, the lock Ian Evans was conducting one of his regular "Ianto's Yak" interviews for the club's website and was asking Marty Holah if it was true the All Black flanker had recently come across an old lady whose bassett hound was being attacked by a pit-bull. "Yeah, she thought I was taking the mick, but I told her that pit-bulls lock their jaw and the only to way to get them to release it is to put a finger up their rectum" replied Holah.

Alas, Tigers are not so compliant. Particularly if it happens to be Ospreys between their teeth.