Irish challenge testing Ospreys

The Ospreys kicked-off a busy month of RaboDirect PRO12 rugby last Friday with the first of three trips to Ireland in the space of four weeks and Andrew Hore has highlighted the challenges that the region faces going up against the Irish provinces during the Six Nations period.

Head Coach Steve Tandy was forced to select a team for last weekend’s game against PRO12 leaders Ulster, who had lost just once in 13 league fixtures this season prior to Friday night, without 23 players absent through international call-ups or injury.

Following a monumental battle the Ospreys were able to secure an impressive 16-12 win over the league leaders to become the first visiting team to leave Ulster’s Ravenhill ground victorious since last April, but there is no respite for the region’s already stretched squad as they return to Ireland this week to face Connacht, and then travel to Limerick where they meet play-off rivals Munster in a fortnight, having welcomed Edinburgh to the Liberty Stadium in between.

Chief Operations Officer Hore acknowledged the size of the challenge facing a youthful group of players during this crucial month.

“There’s no doubt about it, we face a massive challenge over the coming weeks if we are going to secure that top four slot” said Hore.

“It’s very difficult to go to places like Ulster, Connacht and Munster when you are missing 23 players for whatever reason. We are proud of the fact that we supply so many players to the Welsh cause, and that over one third of all caps issued during the regional rugby era have gone to Ospreys players, but that brings with it its own challenges as we are well aware.

“Just look at the contribution we make in front five players alone. Our first choice tighthead is away with Wales and the second choice would be there if he hadn’t got injured on international duty in November. Then the two tightheads who have played for the U20s over the last two weekends came from the Ospreys.

“It’s the same in the second row. We’ve provided two to the senior squad, and now a third, Alun Wyn Jones, will join them. Then we have two second rows in the U20s. It means that in certain departments we are stretched to the limit before you even factor in the inevitable injuries that you have to expect – like Ian Gough pulling out at the last minute on Friday night with a calf strain.

“It does make life very difficult. You are paying wages for players who can be away for up to a third of the season, and then you have to find additional wages for the players who are standing in for the absent internationals. At a time when money in the regional game is increasingly tight it does have an impact on competitiveness. You can’t escape that fact.

“To further complicate matters, Ryan Bevington isn’t being released to the Ospreys as Gethin Jenkins and Paul James have to return to their respective clubs in France and England. Wales don’t want to risk Ryan as one of these guys may pick up an injury this weekend, they understandably want to ensure they have cover next week. We totally understand that, but it does stretch us even further, and is a real example of the issues that get thrown up when players leave Wales to play outside of our borders.

“Development from within is at the very heart of everything we do, but when you look at it objectively, there does need to be some kind of reward and reimbursement for when the players you have brought through gain international recognition. We’ve increased our investment into the development pathway by 600 per cent, but we can’t do this alone.”

The Ospreys faced an Ulster side featuring some world class overseas talent in the likes of Ruan Piennaar and Johann Muller, while the province can also call on talent such as John Afoa, Jared Payne and Nick Williams as they look to push on for silverware in both the PRO12 and the Heineken Cup. It’s the same story at both Connacht and Munster, with their Irish base supplemented by a number of key overseas signings.

“The funding of the game in Ireland means that the teams there are operating on bigger budgets which allows them to keep local talent and secure quality overseas signings to complement the homegrown talent that is at all four provinces during the international windows” added Hore.

“It’s no coincidence that five of the last seven Heineken Cup’s have been won by Irish teams, that last season’s final was an all-Ireland affair, or that once again, 25 per cent of the quarter-finalists come from Ireland while you have a third Irish side in the last eight of the Amlin.

“Being able to create and keep real strength in depth with the addition of quality overseas players allows you to compete on all fronts. That’s what they have in Ireland at the moment. Because of the level of union support the Irish teams receive, it allowed them to keep the second tier of player at the club, the ones that the Welsh teams are losing, those who are just below the top tier international contingent but ahead of the youngsters coming through – people like Tom James who has just left the Blues to go to Exeter.

“It was a wonderful performance and win last weekend in Ulster, one that we can all take great pride in. A young team showed real character and resilience, playing for the cause and really digging in for a memorable victory, but now they’ve got to do it all over again over the next three weekends in a run of games that will define our season.

“It’s important that the local community recognises what these guys are doing for the shirt and get behind this young team next week when Edinburgh come to the Liberty for a game that we simply can’t afford to lose if we want to finish in the play-off places.”

From an Ospreys perspective, Hore said that he believes it’s important that all parties work together to find a solution to the funding puzzle in Wales.

“There’s no one ‘right way’ to do it” he insisted.

“Here at the Ospreys we’ve worked extremely hard to create a pathway that is delivering quality, local talent, but as it stands, we are faced with an increasingly difficult market where it becomes a case of running just to stand still.

“We need to look at all the funding models that are out there, southern and northern hemisphere, and discuss what it is we want in Wales. There is no point simply implementing something because it works elsewhere. We need to come to an agreement on what is the right solution for Wales, find the Welsh way.”