Gruff Rees was in a reflective mood as he looked back on a heavy defeat at the RDS on Friday night that brought the curtain down on a disappointing Heineken Cup campaign for the Ospreys.
He watched an injury-hit team play an hour with just 14-men after Ian Evans was sent-off, and saw injuries force off Ben John, Ryan Jones, Richard Hibbard and Scott Baldwin as Leinster claimed a winning bonus point.
“When you look at it, just about everything that could have gone wrong out there did” said Rees at the post-match press conference.
“It was a pretty chastening night all round, really. The effort from the boys was first class, but with the injuries and the sending off, the challenge was just to big for us. We lost a large number of players from last weekend’s team, and then to suffer the way we did in the first half, we really were up against it. We ended up a man short and with three outside halves and three props on the field.”
Asked about the red card shown to Evans, for alleged stamping, Rees said he was unsure on whether or not it had been the right call.
“It was a big moment but I’m not sure about it to be honest, like a lot of observers I think” he said.
“Perhaps it was a bit reckless, but there were a lot of replays needed to make a decision, which suggests it wasn’t that clear and obvious. It took five or six times in slow-mo to isolate the incident. I don't know if that's clear and obvious from a red card point of view and it changes the game. You have to be absolutely certain with a red card, and that there were so many replays and there are still so many differing opinions on it suggests that the clips may not have been totally conclusive.
“I think when it does get slowed down to the nth degree, something worse can be made of it. It was clearly a key moment in the game, in terms of momentum, and it made what was always going to be a difficult night that much harder. Leinster were dangerous from the off, they had tempo, and we were having to defend very well. We were stretched, we were scrambling around, but we were definitely in it at three-all and a quarter of the game gone.
“We created a few good moments ourselves up to that point, around our general play and setpiece attack, but the red card happened, there were a few key injuries, and it seemed that would could go wrong, did go wrong. That doesn’t take away from the fact that, ultimately, we were playing a quality side who put us to the sword ruthlessly well.
“To be fair to our players, be they experienced internationals or young players coming into the group, they always front up. They do take a lot of pride in the shirt and they always give full commitment. Ultimately though, Europe has shown that the quality isn’t quite there at the top end.
“We’re in a little bit of a dip at the moment, our squad is thinning out, and we are having to go back to eventually go forward, hopefully with more resource behind us. That’s where we are, and where the Welsh game is generally at the moment. The regions do have the lowest level of funding in the competition, and the result of that is that when injuries hit as they have done, the squad is stretched.
“We don’t have the depth that Leinster, or the likes of Northampton do, so it was always going to be a big ask. That’s not an excuse, it’s reality, and that means you are up against it from the beginning. But, saying that, when we review our Heineken Cup campaign I know it will show that on occasion we’ve been the architects of our own downfall at times over the six matches.
“I think the scoreline was a fair reflection of the game in the end, despite how valiantly we battled. They could have had a couple more to put a bit more gloss on the scoreboard, we had to scramble a bit, but I think that would have been a bit harsh on us.”
Having lost both hookers to injury, the Ospreys were forced to use Ryan Bevington as hooker at the scrum, with Adam Jones taking up lineout throwing duties, and Rees explained why the coaches had opted to send on Marc Thomas to make it three props in the front row rather than go for passive scrums.
“Hibbs is very durable but he’s struggling with a few aches and pains tonight. He wanted to front up, he is a key focal point for our go-forward, but he just couldn’t continue. To compound that, our replacement hooker gets concussed. He was adamant he wanted to continue but we took a safety first approach. It didn’t help our performance but in those situations you have to be mindful of the player’s welfare first and foremost.
“We were caught between a rock and a hard place really once we lost both hookers. We had a choice to go to 13 men with a passive scrum or 14 with a front row in play. We had to make a decision, and although going passive would have possibly suited us it would have meant having 13 men against a Leinster side that moves a ball so swiftly and stretches you.
“We just felt that we’ve got to get back up to 14 men on the field because of how they stretch you. That meant we were compromised at the set-piece. We didn’t have a recognised thrower at the line-out and, obviously, without a hooker it got brutal at the scrum where we were on the back foot.”