Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Ospreys braced for stern test

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It would be no surprise if top Welsh region the Ospreys patented Heineken Cup rugby's so-called "Pool of Death".

There must be times when the Swansea-based outfit wonder who they have upset, and this season is no exception.

Their European history is littered with fiendishly-tough draws. Last year it was Leicester and Toulouse, the previous campaign it was Saracens and Biarritz, the year before that Toulon and Munster, while Leicester and Clermont Auvergne blocked their path in 2009.

This time around, the Ospreys have to get past triple European champions Leinster, 2000 Heineken Cup winners Northampton and the consistently-dangerous French side Castres.

Once again, though, there are few question marks surrounding a squad seemingly well-equipped to mount a powerful European challenge.

If injuries do not stall them, the Ospreys have enough quality with players like British and Irish Lions Alun-Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Justin Tipuric, Richard Hibbard and Ian Evans, plus the match-winning ability of individuals such as Dan Biggar and Eli Walker to make their mark.

"We are not necessarily as established in the competition as a lot of other sides. We haven't achieved as much, and that is still a big focus for us, but we are in a good place at the minute," Ospreys captain Alun-Wyn Jones said.

"Off the back of last season, with having a strong finish in the RaboDirect PRO12, and then starting this season in a similar vein, it bodes well for the competition this year.

"It is always going to be a tough pool in a competition like the Heineken Cup."

Since making their tournament debut in 2003, the Ospreys have not progressed beyond quarter-final status, suffering successive last-eight exits at the hands of Saracens, Munster and Biarritz from 2008 and 2010.

Their other seven European campaigns produced group stage exits, but there is a real desire to improve that record, starting next Saturday when the Ospreys host Pool One opponents Leinster.

"We will need all the strength in depth we have in our squad," said Ospreys head coach Steve Tandy, who took over from Sean Holley in February last year.

"We got hit pretty hard last season during the autumn, but we can't wait to get started against Leinster.

"We have got a couple of things to improve on, but the way the guys like Alun-Wyn have come back (from the Lions tour) - the energy they bring to the group - and with that little bit more competition in certain areas this season, it will help us along our way.

"It is something to get really excited about. We had Leicester and Toulouse in our Heineken Cup group last season, and we couldn't wait to get going. I think we are a little bit further down the track this season."

Tandy is also relishing a return to the European stage for exciting Ospreys wing Walker, who was arguably Welsh rugby's most devastating finisher last season before a back injury laid him low.

Walker, 21, was part of Wales' 2013 RBS 6 Nations squad, but after undergoing surgery he then underwent a detailed rehabilitation process before returning to action this term.

"Eli has got that X-factor about him," Tandy added.

"He can finish things off, he can score tries from nothing. He is looking sharper with every game, and it will be an exciting prospect to see him in the Heineken again this year.

"Against Leicester and Toulouse at home last season he was sensational. If you give him a chance to score, he will take it."

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