Make or break time for Ospreys and Scarlets
January 11, 2011
Alun-Wyn Jones must inspire his charges in a vital weekend for the Ospreys © Getty Images
This year, it seems that the crunch will come a week early. It is round six of the Heineken Cup that we usually expect to produce the group stage's moments of truth, but for the surviving Welsh contenders this weekend is one of win or bust.
Neither the Scarlets nor Ospreys will be certain of qualifying if they win their matches, but any other result would make elimination all but certain, raising the grim spectacle of a reversion to those early years of the regional franchise system when Wales failed to supply a single qualifier.
Each faces opposition from the Aviva Premiership, but in widely contrasting current form. That contrast is one reason why the Scarlets - top of their pool and at home this weekend - may face a more difficult path into the last eight than the Ospreys despite the men from the Liberty Stadium being third in their group and having to travel.
The Scarlets entertain Leicester early on Saturday evening and can be forgiven for feeling that there could be better times for playing the Tigers, who have risen to the top of the Premiership on the back of six consecutive victories, displacing Northampton as both leaders and England's form team. They will also carry the psychological edge that comes from their 46-10 shellacking of the Scarlets at Welford Road.
Even if the Scarlets win, they may have to get something from the tough trip to Perpignan on the final weekend in order to win the group, but victory over Leicester would at least give them a decent shot at one of the best runners-up spots.
The question for Nigel Davies will be whether his forwards can compete effectively enough at scrum and breakdown with the Tigers' gnarled battlers to give a lively back division the ball they need. Recent form sends mixed messages. Last weekend saw them end their Scottish jinx with a 21-16 away victory over Edinburgh, but the 60-point hammering by the Ospreys over Christmas remains a recent, painful memory.
That performance showed exactly the sort of ruthless streak the Ospreys will need on Sunday when they go to Reading to play London Irish, who are already effectively eliminated. Again, victory is essential. Fail to win and the victors of the clash between Toulon and Munster on France's south coast will be almost certainly out of reach.
The better outcome for Ospreys would be a win for Toulon, who have to come to the Liberty Stadium on the final weekend of the Pool stage. While they currently top the group, two points ahead of Munster, a victory for them combined with an Ospreys win against Irish would leave the Welsh side's fate in their own hands.
This really is a match that Ospreys can and should win. Irish have lost their last 10 matches in all competitions, an inexplicable collapse in form for a team who have looked one of the brightest in the Premiership over the past couple of seasons. Yet not winning when they should has been the characterising trait of the Ospreys' Heineken campaign so far, just as it was as their run spluttered to a halt in 2009-10.
Ospreys led for most of the way in Toulon and must still be wondering how they came away from Munster without a victory, but the same could also be said of their quarter-final last season away to Biarritz. At least inbetween they showed that they can win big matches on opposing territory, when they defeated Leinster to take the Magners League title, but that capacity has to take on a European dimension pretty quickly or another Heineken campaign is to end in disappointment and frustration.
With neither Cardiff Blues nor the Dragons likely to take even the consolation prize of the Amlin Cup places seized by the Scarlets and Blues last season, failure to progress by either of the two contenders would be a pretty lousy final message to take into the looming Six Nations season.
This year's tournament kicks off with a Friday night start against England, representing the latest measure in the WRU's continuing experiment to establish quite how far they have to abuse the commitment of their fans before they give up and stay at home.
Still, there looks likely to be at least some cheering news when Warren Gatland announces his squad, with the return of a British & Irish Lion and hero of the 2005 Grand Slam who has been off the scene for a while.
Yes, welcome back Dwayne Peel. Which is not to decry the banned Richie Rees or other contenders such as Tavis Knoyle. But it has seemed perverse to omit entirely a player of Peel's quality and experience, whose speed of pass and thought offer the perfect counterpoint to Mike Phillips' power game when an alternative style is needed. Class acts with quick hands and minds are rarely so common that they can be readily discarded, so a recall for Peel would be warmly welcomed in this quarter, and doubtless many others.
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