The summer of 2012 was a frustrating one for an Ospreys supporter. Once the warm glow of the stunning Pro12 Grand Final victory in Dublin had faded, reality came back into focus and the prospect of a life after Shane Williams had to be faced. Not to mention life after Tommy Bowe, Nikki Walker, Paul James and more, as if losing the three leading try scorers in the region’s history wasn’t enough. To counter those loses was a single new signing, Moldovan front-rower Dimitri Arhip eventually arriving in October. A year on, there’s much more to be excited about ahead of the first pre-season fixture against Worcester Warriors at the Liberty Stadium.
The Ospreys have signed Canadian internationals Jeff Hassler and Tyler Ardron, Fijian back Aisea Natoga, and Italian scrum-half Tito Tebaldi, while Jamie Murphy, Sam Williams and Matthew Dwyer have earned full professional contracts having impressed for the region’s premiership clubs. Back-row forwards George Stowers and Jonathan Thomas, scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i, and short-term signings Campbell Johnstone and Cai Griffiths have departed the region.
There has been a promising clarity in Ospreys’ squad management over the summer. From a financial perspective, recruitment has been focused on value-for-money; Hassler, Ardron and Natoga could all be described as under-the-radar, while Murphy, Williams and Dwyer will add depth to the squad at reasonable value. Meanwhile, with the departures of Stowers and Thomas, two of the region’s poorer value contracts have been allowed to lapse. In his two years with the team, Stowers failed to reproduce the form he showed for London Irish and Samoa that would have drawn the region’s interest in the first place. The departure of Thomas, an Ospreys original, is more poignant, but reflects the reality that he can no longer command a place in the match day squad ahead of younger rivals such as James King and Morgan Allen, and the Ospreys cannot afford to retain a 67-cap international as a squad player.
From a playing perspective, once again the intent is apparent. The Ospreys began last season having lost the aforementioned Williams, Bowe and Walker, plus Tom Prydie and Kristian Phillips. While the departures were necessary to the region’s cost-cutting efforts, they left the squad light of wing options, with much of the burden falling to youngsters Eli Walker and Hanno Dirksen. Both impressed while fit, but injuries saw them feature in just 13 and 10 matches respectively, and neither played after the end of January. Without a senior specialist winger left fit, the Ospreys were forced to field the likes of centre Ben John, fullback Ross Jones and scrum-half Tom Habberfield out of position. While all performed admirably in the circumstances, the lack of genuine game-breaking pace or power out wide proved to be one of the team’s major undoings during their difficult Pro12 run-in. Canucks winger Jeff Hassler possesses explosive pace and power, combined with a combative edge and determination that could see him become a fan favourite. In Aisea Natoga, the Ospreys appear to have found a more rounded player whose pace is allied to a footballing ability and inventiveness that makes him an option at fullback as well as on the wing. Both star in their own impressive YouTube montages, but even the Pro12 is likely to be a step up on anything they have played in before. They may not be ready for Heineken Cup rugby in their first season, and perhaps never will be. Signings such as these are a gamble by their nature, but ones the Ospreys must make if they are to improve on a budget.
The signing of Tyler Ardron represents a similar punt on an unrefined talent. Another Canadian international, Ardron will add to an already strong pool of back-five forwards. While the Ospreys pack has close-in grunt and technical ability in abundance, they often lacked a genuinely explosive and rangy ball carrier last season. Ardron, most likely to be seen at either 6 or 8, has an opportunity to fill a significant gap in the Ospreys squad if he can deliver on his potential.
The major disappointment of the region’s recruitment efforts for the new season was the failure to secure a new long-term deal for scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i. One of the form players in Europe last season, Fotuali’i instead signed for Northampton Saints. Almost inevitably, the two sides were drawn into the same Heineken Cup pool, ensuring a swift reunion. The Ospreys’ final signing from outside the region is the man who must replace Fotuali’i: Italian international Tito Tebaldi. While Tebaldi may not be expected to match his predecessor for flair and invention, he is a complete player at scrum-half and arguably more suited to an Ospreys’ game plan which makes heavy use of the box kick (a relative weakness of Fotuali’i’s). With backs coach Gruff Rees having worked with Tebaldi at the now-defunct Aironi, the Ospreys will have had a sound insight into the player’s capabilities and character, and must see him as a man capable of delivering what they need in one of the most important positions on the field. His ability to cover the outside-half and fullback positions and reliable goal-kicking will also provide more flexibility to the coaches when selecting match squads. And a final bonus: he would appear to be out-of-favour with the Italian national set-up, having played just two tests, both on last year’s tour of North America, since 2010. Though should he achieve the level of performance the Ospreys will be hoping for, an international recall may follow.
However, as important as the changes to the on-field personnel may be, the most significant recruitment of the summer could well prove to be new forwards coach, New Zealander Chris Gibbes. Jonathan Humphreys, having held the role since 2005, has taken up a similar position with the Scottish national team alongside former Ospreys colleague Scott Johnson. Following a successful period as head coach of Waikato, it may be regarded as surprising that Gibbes has chosen to take a position as an assistant to a less experienced coach, and his signing would appear to be a major coup for the Ospreys. Gibbes arrived at the region at the beginning of the month, and will be tasked with shaping a strong group of forwards into something greater than the sum of its parts. While Humphreys deserves credit for his part in the production of some outstanding individuals, a strong scrum and a pack with a high work rate and undeniable commitment, there are long-standing technical and tactical flaws in the Ospreys pack as a unit that need addressing. This has been particularly apparent in European competition, where the region is without an away win since beating Viadana in Italy in December 2009. While added firepower out wide is an exciting prospect, everything begins up front, and the fortunes of the Ospreys in 2013-14 may well be tied to the success or failure of their new forwards coach.