Ospreys' counter-attack is a beam of hope on Welsh rugby

The 2023/24 season has proven that the Ospreys have the best counterattack in Wales. But this isn’t referring to their ability to transition from defence and into attack on the field – although with Max Nagy, Luke Morgan and Keelan Giles they also do this very well. This relates to how the Ospreys have managed to accurately transition from the hyper defensive situation that Welsh regional rugby finds itself in, and yet somehow still have a chance to attack the United Rugby Championship’s top eight playoff spots – they also reached the quarter finals of the Challenge Cup let’s not forget.

In terms of the defensive position that the Ospreys have found themselves in recently (as with all the Welsh’ regions), it’s about as grim as it gets. In financial terms, the budget constraints are as restrictive as trying to breathe through a crisp packet. This season’s salary cap was £5.2m for each of the four teams, and it will only get worse next season with a reduction to £4.5m.

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There is of course never a good time to have your budgets cut, but in terms of the progress that the URC has made in recent seasons, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. With the inclusion of the four South African teams, the quality of the league has been incredible. The middle of the table is always a good indication of the competitiveness of a league structure, and this season mid table in the URC is so densely compacted that it looks like someone has put frogspawn through a dehydrator, then a car crusher, followed by a vacuum packer.

Yet through all of this, the Ospreys are the one Welsh region who have been genuinely competitive – although we must give a hat tip to Cardiff Rugby who have also generated an incredible amount of losing bonus points.

So how have the Ospreys achieved this? As with all counterattacks, they may appear random, but they are of course heavily planned. And the Ospreys’ counterattack off the field has been no different.

Firstly, the Ospreys have used some pathways that undoubtedly wind through some left fields. In an ideal world, with healthy budgets, most non academy players arrive via standard recruitment. The Ospreys haven’t had that luxury and their use of two less trodden pathways has been genuinely beneficial. The link up with Swansea University has been exquisite, with both Max Nagy and Huw Sutton becoming first team players. But perhaps their greatest backroad to players has been their relationship with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. Mostly when we hear of teams partnering in this way, it goes little further than the sharing of information.

Representatives from both organisations get on a plane, have lunch, flick through some PowerPoint slides, and then swap numbers. But that is not what has happened with the Ospreys and Cheetahs. It’s gone way beyond swapping numbers and led to actually swapping shirts, with some fantastic players arriving at key periods in the season – Evardi Boshoff being a great example.

Then there’s the focus on what the Ospreys do better than any other region in Wales, and that’s focusing on the tight five first. With many of the other regions seemingly obsessed with spending on wings, centres and outside halves, the Ospreys’ focus is very clearly on promoting young locks and scrummaging front row forwards.

At the Ospreys, if you can’t scrummage at prop/ hooker or dominate collisions at lock you don’t play – regardless of what your spin pass and carrying metres look like. Rhys Henry and Sutton are great examples of this. They never feature on social media, rarely get interviewed and their highlights are scant, but both are exactly the type of players that the other regions are lacking. When your pack can generate a stack of scrum penalties away at the Stormers, you know the tight five is in a reasonable place.

Lance Bradley has also been a fantastic addition to the organisation. The plans to move the Ospreys into a purpose-built stadium are moving more rapidly than Keelan Giles after two scoops of Thermobol. Plus, Bradley’s presence on social media has not only given a genuine sense of engagement within the Ospreys, but also made Welsh regional rugby feel a little less like it’s all locked behind massive mahogany doors. All of which has made the Ospreys feel like a far more engaging organisation this season. The fact that roughly 60% of their ticket sales come as a direct result of most of the ‘Ospreys in the Community’ team is further proof of this.

And then finally there’s Toby Booth. Whose impact at the Ospreys has arguably been as important as any coach in the history of regional rugby. There have of course been regional coaches who have won plenty in the past, but they had Waitrose budgets. Booth has been given £50 quid to nip to Lidl and done a stunning job with it. He has created a legit set of forwards with multiple competitive options in every position in the pack. The greatest example of the pack depth being Harri Deaves, who is arguably the third choice openside at the region behind Jac Morgan and Justin Tipuric – yet plays like he’s already had 25 caps for Wales.

The Ospreys may yet not make the playoffs and they are of course out of the Challenge Cup, but this season has arguably been one of the most rewarding that Ospreys’ supporters have had in years. A back three of Tommy Bowe, Lee Byrne and Shane Williams will always be hard to recreate, but the way the Ospreys have counter attacked off the field this season, from deep, has been impressive.

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