Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Ulster Rugby: Ospreys aim to soar above all the acrimony

Coach Steve Tandy has the Ospreys fired up

It seemed all rather fitting that another European season of gross underachievement ended with the Ospreys getting a 36-3 shoeing from Leinster at the RDS last month.

And if that wasn't bad enough, second row Ian Evans was shown a red card by Romain Poite over his stamp on Mike McCarthy and served up with a ban which all hardly endeared him Warren Gatland or indeed the long-suffering Ospreys supporters especially as he is on his way to Toulon at the end of the season.

But, then again, with the turmoil which is engulfing Welsh rugby, with the regions and WRU becoming seemingly ever more embroiled in a stand-off over the game's future direction in the Principality, the fact that the Ospreys had ignominiously slipped out of what could yet be the last Heineken Cup and had a key player given his marching orders and banned was still small beer when put alongside the bigger and rather more alarming picture.

Still, things rather brightened up around Swansea when Alun Wyn Jones opted to actually stick around by signing a new contract with the Ospreys though, almost inevitably such is the way of Welsh rugby, the Wales and Lions second row has chosen to re-sign a regional contract and not one of the new national ones which the WRU are currently wafting around and which has already bagged Sam Warburton.

Indeed, earlier this week, further fuel was hurled on the growing inferno when Robert Davies, a shareholder at the Liberty Stadium, firmly rejected the WRU's notion that the regions are quite willing to have more key Welsh players agree to the national contracts.

With Osprey prop Adam Jones believed to be likely to follow Warburton's lead, Davies didn't hold back over the crisis.

"The regions have been consistent in their view there is no system to support central contracts in Wales," Davies said.

"There's no proof that the players will stay in Wales. You have to have a whole plan, not just a plan that grabs headlines."

So, civil war is still very much in the air which is anything but ideal preparation for the national side, nor indeed for the Ospreys as they aim to make the PRO12 play-offs for the fourth time in five years.

Of course for Steve Tandy and his squad this time of year is hardly ideal with the Six Nations taking a heavy cut of players but they aren't exactly the only side in this position and, after tonight, they have pivotal back-to-back home games against a similarly diluted Treviso and Munster sides.

So, the focus is now very much on securing a top four place and their league form has been pretty decent as they have managed to win four of their last five PRO12 outings.

Mind you, coming to Ravenhill with 19 players unavailable due to Welsh commitments of various hues doesn't augur well, nor does the fact that Ulster won at the Liberty Stadium in October.

There is a heavy emphasis on youth though the age profile is upped by the presence of veteran prop Duncan Jones and number eight Joe Bearman while Tito Tebaldi is sure to make an impact off the bench.

As Tandy said: "These next four weeks are massive for us in terms of the rest of the season, and beyond that, in regards to what we are trying to build here for the longer term, whatever the future holds for Ospreys."

The future? It all sounds rather ominous.

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