Ospreys 30 Saracens 3: Williams prospers as Ospreys do fine imitation of Wales
The Ospreys are not quite Wales, despite boasting well over half the Grand Slam starting combination and a fair few fringe players besides. To begin with, they play with a veritable dog of an open-side flanker from the farmlands of New Zealand rather than a thoroughbred from an old pit village in the Rhondda, and whatever it is that the national coach Warren Gatland brings to the mix, Lyn Jones of Ospreylia brings something different.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone more different than Jones. Yet there were some striking similarities between the way Wales subdued their Six Nations rivals and the fashion in which the Neath-Swansea conglomerate splattered Saracens all over the Millennium Stadium on Saturday evening: the vibrant movement of the ball in broken field, the rush of points in the second half, the courageous commitment to the scramble defence that allowed the victors to maintain their honour as well as their interest in the EDF Energy Cup.
Desperate as Saracens were to find some spiritual sustenance ahead of the more important Heineken Cup quarter-final between the two sides in 13 days' time, they left Cardiff with plenty of nothing.
During the Six Nations, the Welsh ability to raise the tempo and turn the screw in the second period was central to their success: only two of their 13 tournament tries were scored before the intervals.
At the weekend, the Ospreys accumulated 22 of their 30 points – and three of their four tries – in the second half. Just like Wales, the frequency of their passing movements were far in advance of the average; just like Wales, they gave precious little away when they were without the ball, even when the victory was safely under lock and key.
And just like Wales, they had Shane Williams hanging around on the wing. He inhabited the right one on this occasion, rather than the left, but mere positioning does not matter much to Williams these days. He is having the time of his life, leaving opponents for dead in the wide areas of the field and slicing them open like some sporting Jack the Ripper in the more congested central areas.
Here, he even managed to imitate the great Gareth Edwards with a kick-and-chase score from his own half that almost beggared belief. When Edwards performed the feat, against the Scots in the early 1970s, he was playing in a swamp and took the best part of a day to complete the score. Williams, blessed with faster going, managed it in seven seconds flat.
Things are going rather nicely for Gavin Henson, too. When the snow fell briefly just after kick-off – how much more enjoyable the Millennium Stadium experience is without a squillion tons of concrete overhead – there was not even the slightest suggestion that his fake tan might run.
Better still, he scored a try direct from a scrum to kill off any faint possibility of a Saracen uprising. In doing so, he subjected his opposite number to something approaching complete humiliation.
That opposite number was Andy Farrell, who, lest we forget, was a member of the England squad at last year's World Cup. The Rugby Football Union spent a good deal of money luring him away from rugby league, aficionados of which knew he was already past his best, and the return on their investment has been pitifully small.
On Saturday, any notion that he might emerge unscathed from a contest against an inside centre as potent as Henson was exposed in all its naïvety.
Alan Gaffney, the Australian sage whose productive coaching spell with Saracens is nearing its end, was blunt about Farrell's shortcomings. "The tackle he missed on Henson should have been made," he said. "It should have been easy meat, and you'll hear no excuses from Andy or me." But in a sense, Farrell was the least of Gaffney's problems. The old Wigan hand at least tried to give Saracens some forward momentum, even if the absence of anything resembling pace undermined his efforts. Those around him were entirely directionless.
None more so than Glen Jackson at outside-half, who was hounded to distraction by Marty Holah, the All Black flanker recruited from Waikato last summer. The New Zealander is no Martyn Williams – when it comes to creativity, the current Wales breakaway is in a different league –but when he has the scent of a No 10 in his nostrils, he is indefatigable. Under the Holah heat, Jackson ran sideways, scuttled backwards and disappeared into his own nether regions. Long before the end, he was a broken man. Gaffney has less than a fortnight to piece him back together.
For Jones, who has coached the Ospreys since regionalisation, it was a satisfying end to a testing week. His side are not particularly loved away from the old western union bastions of St Helen's and The Gnoll – they have too many star names, too many big earners, too many expensive foreign recruits – and there was a sharp focus on the coach in the aftermath of the Grand Slam achievement. Would the returning internationals respond to his off-the-wall approach after being driven hard by such dyed-in-the-wool realists as Gatland and Shaun Edwards, or would there be mixed messages and confusion?
As it turned out, Jones summoned from his charges a performance of considerable authority – a performance good enough to suggest that come May, a Welsh side might contest a Heineken Cup final for the first time in a dozen years.
"We're a more effective side now than we were 12 months ago," said the coach. "A team needs to go through experiences in order to improve." A fair proportion of this Ospreys team have experienced a good deal of late, all of it good. This could be their season of seasons.
Ospreys: Tries Williams 2, Henson, Tiatia; Conversions Hook 2; Penalties Hook 2. Saracens: Penalty Jackson.
Ospreys: L Byrne (J Marshall, 43-51); S Williams, S Parker, G Henson (A Bishop, 76), J Vaughton; J Hook (D Biggar, 83), M Phillips (Marshall, 73); P James (D Jones, 64), R Hibbard (H Bennett, 12-23 and 64), A Jones, A W Jones, I Evans (L Bateman, 78), J Thomas (F Tiatia, 64), M Holah, R Jones (capt).
Saracens: B Russell; R Haughton, F Leonelli (K Sorrell, 72), A Farrell, D Scarbrough; G Jackson, N De Kock (capt, M Rauluni, h-t); N Lloyd (K Yates, 76), F Ongaro (A Kyriacou, 62), C Visagie, C Jack (T Ryder, 42), H Vyvyan, K Chesney (P Gustard, 62), D Barrell, B Skirving.
Referee: W Barnes (London).
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