After the Ospreys secured one of the greatest ever Heineken Cup victories of their short history, defeating reigning French camps and four times kings of Europe Toulouse at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Gruff Rees insisted that Pool Two is wide open following the fourth round of fixtures.
Leicester Tigers lead the group after a last gasp win over Benetton Treviso at the same as the Ospreys were seeing off their French visitors, with the defeated Toulouse now sitting in second place ahead of the Ospreys. However, with Leicester next up at the Liberty in this competition, in mid January, Backs Coach Rees agreed with the suggestion from the press that the win certainly makes the next round very interesting.
“Yes, it does” smiled Rees.
“We said we’d play to the last, regardless of scoreboards etc and we are proud of that attitude. We said three wins might give us something, in this competition or the Amlin.
“In that respect. Leicester snuck something out in Treviso today, which doesn’t help, but it really puts something on the game at home against them in the next round. There’s still a bit to play for."
With the Ospreys win in round one over Treviso being the only Welsh win in nine Heineken Cup fixtures this season prior to this weekend’s fixtures leading to criticism of the state of Welsh rugby from some quarters.
After victory number two for the region, the question was put to Rees that the Ospreys had struck a blow for Welsh rugby, but he preferred to concentrate on the positives in Ospreylia.
“We continue to plough on and try to achieve what we want to achieve” was his initial response.
“We think we offer light at the end of the tunnel, people are quick to beat up Welsh rugby, this that and the other, but we are pretty confident about our future direction. Win or lose today, we said after last week that we are trying to develop a squad of players that can compete and achieve in an Ospreys shirt.
“We want to keep that ambition, we never want to lose that. Winning a tight game like that today shows that we can compete, and perhaps maybe more.”
On the subject of injured players, Rees insists that the consistency of the Ospreys player development pathway, combined with the opportunity provided by the misfortune of those ruled out, means that the region will be in a stronger position for the current lengthy absentee list. He explained:
“We’re probably as we are now over the Christmas games, other than people like Jonathan Thomas and Tom Smith who may come back in, giving us extra competition in the back five.
“The injuries have added extra competition to the squad though, with the people coming in who have stepped up. We’re trying to develop our pool of players to cope with ongoing pressure situations in an Ospreys shirt and we’re starting to show some of that.
“It’s something we’ve had an eye on as a business over the last two or three years to be honest. People like Beck, Biggar, Tipuric, they’ve had their opportunities prior to this year, now the next wave of young players are coming through. Everyone who steps in has got the ability to do so but what is really pleasing is they’ve got the desirable mental qualities. They’ve got that toughness about them, and also a pride in representing the Ospreys shirt.
“I think once you’ve got both the mentality and the ability to play in that shirt, we’re moving onto something quite special perhaps. We’ll continue to develop depth in Welsh rugby by producing the next wave of players. There are one or two others who are coming through that can also make an impact in an Ospreys shirt. We’re not going to just stop and be satisfied with what we’ve done, we are going to keep pushing, not only to perform well but also to keep developing players.”
Although the win was down to a fantastic team effort, backed up by great support from the stands, among the individuals who came in for praise in the media room were Eli Walker, Dan Biggar and Richard Hibbard.
Rees paid tribute to the efforts of try-scorer Walker, saying:
“Eli’s been having those moments fairly consistently, that’s the make up of the man. He’s starting to grow up a little bit, playing week in, week out, and he’s a diligent professional who is developing his confidence at this level, as he should.
“We tell him that he’s got all the attributes to cause damage to any team in the world and he’s shown that today.”
About Dan, Rees commented:
“We spoke last week that there were elements of rustiness in his game last Saturday, which was perhaps half expected, but he certainly manned up defensively for us today. He was a big figure for us, tactically he understood what we wanted to achieve today, and on the front foot with ball in hand he’s got real balance, challenging the line and putting others into space. He’s got to back it up now over the Christmas period and then into the Leicester game. If he does that, I’m sure he’ll get his reward on the international scene."
Finally, on the subject of Hibbard, who returned from injury well ahead of schedule to put in a phenomenal personal effort, Rees added:
“We’re in the 76th minute, he’s got a few bumps and bruises, we’re debating take him off yet he’s flying into tackles, getting in that defensive line, and in the set piece game he does give us a bit of an edge. He threw himself around quite incredibly. His recovery from injury has been first class, and he showed the fact that he will almost die for the cause out there today. “