Ospreys out to banish Watford memories
October 3, 2008
Shane Williams and the Ospreys came up short in last season's quarter-finals © Getty Images
The Ospreys crash-landed in last season's Heineken Cup. And when they begin their latest European assault against twice tournament winners Leicester on October 12, memories will still be fresh of a painful Sunday afternoon in Watford.
Tipped as probably Wales' best bet in Heineken Cup history to land the prestigious trophy, the force appeared to be with them. Quarter-final opponents Saracens had no real European pedigree, while the Ospreys had grounded them by a landslide 30-3 in an EDF Energy Cup semi-final meeting the previous month.
The Ospreys, with their galaxy of talent, surely could not lose, especially given an added incentive that their proposed semi-final appearance - against Gloucester or Munster - was already booked for Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. They had so much to gain, but it all spectacularly unravelled at Vicarage Road as Saracens' greater desire and hunger for the task saw them run out 19-10 winners.
It was a result that rocked the Ospreys to their Swansea roots, and left Ospreys supporters wondering whether a better chance of landing European rugby's biggest prize would ever present itself. Some six months later, Lyn Jones is no longer head coach at the Liberty Stadium, while former All Blacks scrum-half Justin Marshall has quit for French club rugby with Montpellier.
But the Ospreys remain an imposing presence in any tournament they contest, and this season's Heineken Cup promises to be no exception. Welsh Grand Slam stars of last term are littered throughout the side - Ryan Jones, Shane Williams, Gavin Henson, James Hook and Lee Byrne to name just five - with all them pretty much shoo-ins for next summer's Lions tour to South Africa.
Jones is among the front-runners to travel as Lions captain, but it is wing wizard Williams who keeps capturing the headlines. The diminutive try machine broke Gareth Thomas' Welsh international record of 40 touchdowns last term, and he currently boasts a strike-rate of 43 tries in 58 Tests.
Such form gained him a coveted nomination for International Rugby Board player of the year 2008 - Jones is also on the list - with the winner to be announced in London next month. But Williams, perhaps like no other player, is the man who can fire Ospreys out of a daunting Heineken Cup pool that also features Leicester and French challengers Perpignan, complete with All Blacks fly-half superstar Dan Carter.
Former Wales captain Ieuan Evans, who held the Wales Test try record before Thomas overhauled him, has unstinting admiration for Williams. Evans said: "Shane thinks there is more to come from him, listening to some of the comments he has made recently. He is still learning, and in these days of professional rugby you have to adapt - you have to evolve as a player.
"The game is constantly changing, so players have to adapt, and he has done that successfully throughout his career. He's adapted and is constantly working on areas of his game. You have to develop those areas, regardless of the quality of the player you might be, because everyone else does. You can't stand still, otherwise you get overtaken.
"He has always strived to improve his game, and he has gone from strength to strength."
Evans is a fully paid-up member of the burgeoning Williams fan club, and he believes his success is richly deserved. Evans added: "Shane had a wonderful season last season, and his nomination for the International Rugby Board player of the year is thoroughly deserved.
"If you give Shane the ball, he frightens defences - simple as that. He has always had that natural ability to beat people - he can beat people on a sixpence - but there are areas of his game he has worked hard on, such as his defence.
"He has reaped the rewards, and that's what it is about. As a professional sportsman, when you work on your game as hard as Shane has done, then rewards come. I am delighted for him.''
The Ospreys will hope that individual magic rubs off on a concerted team bid for European honours this term - then maybe memories of Watford might finally fade.
© PA Sport
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