If Welsh regional rugby is in a state – and it is, despite the astounding six-day turnaround in fortunes that saw Cardiff Blues do for the European champions Toulon at the Arms Park and the exhilarating adventure of the Scarlets back division, which would warm the cockles of the most embittered union-watcher – the root problem is a shortage of money, not a lack of effort. The Ospreys drew a blank in the East Midlands on Sunday and their Heineken Cup campaign is all but over as a consequence, but they fought the good fight with passionate intensity.
Unfortunately for the likes of Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar, both of whom put in the kind of shift that would have made Hercules blanch, some fights are just about unwinnable. The first is the economic one: there is simply not enough of the folding stuff west of the River Severn to keep the best home-produced players in the country – a fact that in the fullness of time may persuade Jones himself, perhaps the Republic of Ospreylia’s greatest patriot, to join the likes of Lee Byrne, James Hook, Mike Phillips in casting an eye overseas.
And the second? The second goes by the name of Courtney Lawes. When the England lock is in this kind of form, there is no safe haven anywhere on the field. Lawes made an almighty mess of his Welsh opponents in laying the foundations for a victory that puts Northampton at the centre of the qualification mix – his work on the carry was almost as impressive as his unique brand of “human drone” tackling, which is saying something – and there can be little doubt that he will feature when England take on the Wallabies at Twickenham in 12 days’ time.
Jim Mallinder, the Saints’ rugby director, used the word “sensational” in respect of the 24-year-old forward and no fair-minded observer could accuse him of exaggerating. “The thing with Courtney now is that he’s doing it for 80 minutes instead of drifting in and out of matches,” Mallinder said. “He’s turning himself into a complete player over the course of complete games.”
The point will not have been lost on the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, who now faces an interesting “contrast and compare” exercise as he weighs the claims of second-row candidates as diverse as Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury and Dave Attwood, together with the guided missile from the Gardens.
Lawes laid into the visitors from the get-go, burying the Ospreys scrum-half Tom Habberfield in the opening seconds and forcing the Welshmen into the first of many coughings-up of possession. It gave Stephen Myler, whose precision work from the kick-off made Habberfield a natural target for the hardest hitter in the English game, the chance to set the scoreboard spinning with a penalty, and when the outside-half slid an intelligent grubber kick into the rival red zone a few minutes later, it was Lawes who forced Eli Walker into conceding a five-metre scrum that resulted in the simplest of trundling tries for Samu Manoa. Two Lawes tackles, 10 points in the bag.
And so it went on, Lawes leaving sundry Welshmen in shallow graves all over the greensward. His after-match assertion that he was now tackling with an element of self-preservation in mind – “I’m not trying to hurt people as much these days,” he claimed – would have raised an eyebrow or two in the Ospreys camp. “I think my head’s in a great place at the moment,” he continued. It is indeed. Generally in the guts of the nearest opponent.
When Lawes – yes, him again – flicked a decent pass off his right hand in the build-up to Christian Day’s corner-flag try on 26 minutes, Ospreys were 17-6 down and contemplating a towelling. That they conceded only 10 more points in 50-odd minutes of rugby against an ambitious team bursting with energy and bristling with physicality was a triumph of balls-out bravery in the face of adversity.
Biggar, who nailed long-range penalties either side of the 20-minute mark, was quite something in all respects: in attack and defence, in kicking out of hand and off the tee. When he scored a try at the sticks through the heaviest of traffic early in the second half and went on to convert it after receiving treatment for the roadkill treatment he took in the act of touching down, no one could have been more deserving.
What he did not deserve was a trip to the cooler at the death – a rather heartless call by the over-fussy referee Alain Rolland, who decided the stand-off had not rolled away sufficiently quickly from a try-saving tackle on Ken Pisi.
But for that breathless piece of scrambling, Northampton would have claimed a bonus point: an outcome that would really have rubbed Ospreys’ noses in the you know what. Yet the notion that the Swansea-based side, very much the Welsh flagbearers in this competition in recent times, have been reduced to the status of an obstruction – that the most they can expect to achieve in a major European fixture on the road is the prevention of richer, better-equipped opponents claiming a maximum return – is depressing indeed.
Jones, magnificently combative in the engine room, could hardly utter a comprehensible sentence afterwards, so low were his spirits. It seems cruel to say it, but there may be more disappointment to come. Rugby at the elite end is fuelled by money, and the Welsh regions are being priced out of it.
Scorers: Northampton: Tries Manoa, Day, Foden; Conversions Myler 3; Penalties Myler 2. Ospreys: Try: Biggar; Conversions Biggar; Penalties Biggar 3.
Northampton: B Foden; J Elliott (K Pisi 75), G Pisi, L Burrell, G North; S Myler, L Dickson (K Fotuali’i 62); A Waller (E Waller 69), D Hartley (capt, M Haywood 10-13 and 75), S Ma’afu (G Denman 57), C Lawes, C Day, P Dowson (C Clark 55), T Wood, S Manoa (G J Van Velze 55).
Ospreys: R Fussell; J Hassler, A Beck (M Morgan 72), A Bishop, E Walker; D Biggar, T habberfield; R Bevington (D Jones 62), R Hibbard (S Baldiwn 69), A Jones (A Jarvis 54), A W Jones (capt), J King (S Lewis 69), R Jones (T Ardron 54), J Tipuric, J Bearman (M Allen 47).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).