Gruff Rees has revealed the emotion in the dressing after the Ospreys bowed out of the tightest European Cup pool since the competition was launched more than 20 years ago.
On a crazy day of rugby, all four teams in Pool 2 remained in contention to win the group and progress to the quarter-final right until the closing stages, Thomas Waldrom’s 79th minute try ending the Ospreys’ last remaining hope of a losing bonus point that would have been enough to take them through.
As confusion reigned at Sandy Park, the news filtered through from France that Bordeaux had defeated Clermont Auvergne, with the outcome being that Exeter, with the Chiefs, Ospreys and Bordeaux all tied on 16 points, one ahead of Clermont, it was the hosts who had taken the honours.
Asked at the post-match press conference what the emotion was in the dressing room, Backs Coach, Gruff Rees, was unequivocal.
“Utter devastation really, knowing that the opportunity was there and we didn’t take it” he said.
“We can talk about Exeter being a better side on the day, but the emotion is pure disappointment.”
Rees acknowledged that the coaches had all been following events in France throughout the afternoon and had made sure that the team was aware in the closing minutes that a bonus point would have been enough.
“We were pretty clear” he said.
“We spoke at half-time that there was no drama, we could build our way into the game and create some pressure without overdoing it against Exeter.
"And I think we did that perhaps in snippets at the start of the second half, even at the end when we were 26-17 down, knowing that if we can negate their work in the 22 you'll get another shot and that potentially takes you through.
"We knew all that. Al was getting messages - he was pretty clear, but it's redundant anyway."
Reflecting on the day, and the campaign as a whole, Rees clearly had mixed emotion.
“We got ourselves into a position where it was a huge opportunity, the players certainly realise that” said Rees.
“It wasn’t down to a lack of thought process going into the game, or emotion. I think there were some rugby things there where we just weren’t as good as Exeter on the day and huge credit to them, the way they constructed the game, the way they took their chances, and the way they’ve navigated themselves out of the pool.
“It is a great achievement and a credit to them. It’s also perhaps a lesson about the money world of the English and French clubs. We are building a young group that we believe in, that we think can get to that point in the future.”
That future starts this week, with the focus now turning to a home game at the Liberty against Glasgow in the PRO12 in a week’s time, and Rees says attention has already turned to that:
“This group has shown at times throughout this campaign what potential there is here, if we can keep growing as a group. Two 19 year olds have experienced this atmosphere and level of competition today, 20 and 21 year olds, and it will stand them in good stead.
“I think people underestimate what a challenge it is to come to Exeter, they’ve not lost at home in over a year and we’ve seen what they’ve done to all three teams in the pool here at Sandy Park. I think that’s seven consecutive bonus point wins here in European competition.
“The crowd play a big part in that. Exeter have really built something special here and we have to try and emulate that. We are heading in the right direction, despite the obvious hurt everyone around Ospreys Rugby will be feeling right now, but we have to look to the future, not backwards.
“We’ll reflect on this tonight on the journey home but we won’t feel sorry for ourselves. We haven’t got time for that, we have to take stock of the situation and make sure we prepare for Glasgow properly. We’ve got a lot of work still to do in the PRO12 and that starts now, on and off the field.”