The summer of 2003 was one of change in Welsh rugby, with the onset of regional rugby...
The game had gone professional shortly before the turn of the century and Wales was getting left behind. A small playing base was being spread too thinly between the ten top flight clubs with clubs. The national team were struggling to make an impact so a change was radically needed - and regional rugby certainly was radical. For the 2003/04 season, a new regional entity was created, merging two former giants of the Welsh domestic game, Neath RFC and Swansea RFC. Sworn rivals of old, separated by just nine miles, but worlds apart.
Neath-Swansea Ospreys, as the new team was originally called, saw the coming together of two world-renowned rugby clubs. At the helm were two men proud to represent their home town clubs, former Swansea and Wales Full Back Roger Blyth and from Neath, Mike Cuddy. Together, as Joint Managing Directors, they were charged with steering a ship that was guaranteed to sail through stormy waters as the new region tried to survive what was guaranteed to be a rocky start.
Immediate Success - On and Off the field...
In the eight years since the inception of Neath-Swansea Ospreys, as the new team was originally called, the region has grown both geographically and metaphorically and now leads the way in the Welsh game.
After a difficult start to regional life, with the team playing out of two old grounds in Neath and Swansea, silverware came as soon as the end of only the second season when the new entity was crowned Celtic League champions for the first time in 2005.
It was a year that was to prove to be a turning point for the region. Just two months after winning the league title, the region had a new home. Moving into the state of the art, 20,520 capacity Liberty Stadium, a £27million purpose built facility shared with Swansea City FC. The same summer saw a name change, with Neath-Swansea dropped as they became known simply as the Ospreys. With the region's boundaries now expanded to incorporate Bridgend, the decision to drop the geographic names was seen as a way of embracing the wider communities across 'Ospreylia'.
With the Ospreys now firmly established, the landmarks kept on coming. 2006/07 saw the Ospreys become the first region to defeat a major touring international side when Australia were beaten at a sold out Liberty Stadium, followed by a second league title. More silverware followed a year later when the Ospreys became the first Welsh region to win at Twickenham, thumping English giants Leicester Tigers to claim the EDF Cup, and they were again setting new standards in 2010 when victory over Leinster in Dublin saw them become the first team to win three Celtic league titles.
A change of coach in early 2012 saw Ospreys ‘original’ Steve Tandy taking charge of the team and within months he had delivered a fourth league title to the region, Shane Williams scoring a dramatic late try on his last ever appearance which was converted by Dan Biggar as the Ospreys again upset the odds in Dublin, defeating the newly crowned European champions by a single point.
The future plans for the One True Region...
The biggest success that the Ospreys have enjoyed since 2003 has arguably come off the pitch.
Despite being a business that is focused on the development of local talent, and proudly represents its local community, the Ospreys have, in a very short period of time, grown to become one of the most globally recognisable sporting brands, thanks in no small part to the distinctive and innovative 'mask' logo. The Ospreys jersey has established itself has something of a sales phenomenon and is now the second highest selling club shirt in European rugby, so the strength of the Ospreys brand is clear to see.
Not only leading the way in Wales, the forward thinking and innovative outlook at the Ospreys has seen a number of far reaching initiatives taking the business into new markets. New partnerships across Europe and into the developing rugby markets in the Middle and Far East have allowed the Ospreys to reach out into untapped territory, opening doors and providing exciting and opportunities to be exploited in conjunction with business partners that are unrivalled in rugby. It is this combination of innovative thinking on and off the field, and the ability to consider both the local and global perspective that has allowed the Ospreys to not only confound the critics back in to 2003 but to thrive and become a leading rugby organisation.