The first captain to lift silverware with the Ospreys believes that the current vibe at the Liberty Stadium is reminiscent of what he calls 'the day the Ospreys were truly born'.
British Lion Barry Williams was one of the ‘Originals’ from the summer of 2003, and his place in the Ospreys Hall of Fame is secured after he captained the team to the 2005 Celtic League title before scoring the first try in the historic win over Australia and then becoming the first centurion at the region a little over two years later.
Now retired from playing and cutting his coaching teeth at Llangennech RFC, Williams remains a passionate Ospreys observer and he says that he was thrilled to see the way a youthful team kicked off the season with a stylish 27-3 win over Leinster at the Liberty Stadium. Reflecting on the game, Williams said that the Ospreys are heading in the direction:
“If you try to play attractive rugby, with a young team who are local boys, the community will respond and get behind the team. They’ll identify with what they see as their region, their people wearing the shirt. That recognition won’t just be in the Ospreys region, it will be wider than that. People will realise that the Ospreys are a team with a cause.
“I work now for Parker Plant in Llanelli. On Monday morning I went in and all the Scarlets supporters, all the old Llanelli fans, they were saying ‘Barry, it was lovely to see the Ospreys playing on Friday night, they played well and they really enjoyed themselves.’
“The best thing was that people recognised that it wasn’t about stars, it was about local kids playing for each other. It was great to hear Turks praising the Ospreys. You don’t hear that very often!”
Looking back on his time wearing the famous black shirt, Williams can see clear parallels between the Ospreys of today and the team he was involved with back in the inaugural 2003/04 season.
After a difficult start to life as a regional organisation, and a long losing run that had seen the critics lining up to write off the Ospreys project as a failure, Williams was part of a core of players that dug in for the cause and helped to turn the situation around, propelling the region towards its first ever silverware, the Celtic League title, in only its second season of existence.
Williams insists that there was a clear turning point for the region:
“The game that stands out for me was against Leeds. We were coming off a 10-match losing run, and to be honest, that was the day it changed for us all. We went back to basics, dogged the game out. It wasn’t the prettiest game I’ve ever been involved in, but we won. We had no heroes and we just played for each other. It’s about playing for the shirt, isn’t it?
“To be honest, I think that day was a turning point for the Ospreys. It was the day the Ospreys were truly born. I really think it was. We’d had a bad run and people were thinking that was it for us. We weren’t expected to be a success from day one. That was the turning point.
“We were at St Helen’s, I still remember it. We dogged out a 10-3 win against Leeds and from that game we went on an unbeaten run. It allowed us to discover our belief again. We really pulled together and got our reward for working hard as a team, for each other, for the shirt. During the winning run I was appointed captain and I was honoured to be able to lead such a close-knit team, particularly after the way everyone had pulled together and responded to adversity.
“The players we had in that team, that went on to win our first league title the next year, we weren’t stars. Yes, we’d played for our country, but we wore the shirt with pride."
As one of the old heads in that particular Ospreys team, Williams was able to play a part in the development of a number of players who have gone on to become true Ospreys legends, and he says that now is the time for those individuals to assume a new role:
“We wanted to take it back to basics. There were no stars in that team against Leeds. There were old heads like Andrew Millward and some young players like Duncan, Shane, Andy Lloyd, Tandy and Jonathan Thomas, who went on to become great servants to the region and still are.
“When I took up the captaincy I gave up international rugby straight away. My philosophy was I couldn’t go away for six to eight weeks with Wales and send our young players up to Edinburgh or Borders on a Friday night, I couldn’t do that.
“Things have gone full circle now. Watching the team last Friday, the likes of Duncan and Jonathan are playing the role of the experienced, older heads, providing the guidance to the next generation of youngsters coming through and it’s great to see.
“They won’t like me saying it but they are the father figures now. All good teams have kids who are confident enough to express themselves and they have the father figures. It’s about getting that mix right. It was a breath of fresh air on Friday, watching those kids enjoying themselves and playing with no fear.
“Duncan and Jonathan were there at the start. They’ve been there through those dark nights, and they understand what’s needed to help bring young kids through.”
Williams strongly believes that the commitment to development from within which has seen the directors at the region invest heavily in the Elite Youth Development Pathway is really starting to bear fruit and will ensure the long term future of the region:
“I hope that the team can continue to grow and don’t play with a fear of failing. People are always looking to knock the Ospreys down, but the reality is they are heading in the right direction.
“The money that is being spent in youth development is starting to show, starting to make a difference. People don’t see what’s being done behind the scenes and they don’t particularly want to as it’s not sexy. They don’t see the half a million pounds a year being pumped into a development system and then ‘bang’ - here you are with so many young players making that next step that they sit up and take notice.
“If anyone says ‘the Ospreys don’t have any stars anymore’ the simple answer is to take a look at the youth system, the money being spent there and the number of players coming through. That will be of more long term benefit to rugby in the region than spending huge money on someone who doesn’t believe in what the Ospreys are trying to do.”
While the onus is on some of the long standing Ospreys to stand up and be counted with a youthful looking squad, Williams says he is also looking forward to seeing the likes of new overseas signings George Stowers and Kahn Fotuali’ in action as he believes they will also have a huge role to play this season:
“As well as local boys we also had a bit of foreign blood in there with Stefan Terblanche and looking at it now, with young players who have a huge future with the region, I can see why the coaches have gone out to sign the likes of Stowers and Fotuali’i. You do need one or two boys to supplement the squad when the internationals are away, boys who are here for the right reasons. They need to buy in to what the Ospreys are about, what they are doing.
“If you look back over the years at the likes of Stefan, Filo Tiatia, Jason Spice, Marty Holah, they are players who came and wanted to play for the region. They came here to make a difference and the Ospreys were all the better for their presence. You can’t look at the current squad and tell me players like Tipuric, Tom Smith, they aren’t better players through working with Filo and Marty? These old heads can be the glue that holds the team together during tough times, like it was back in that first season.”