The Main Man: Dan Biggar
To identify the single most important individual in the squad, ask who, if the Ospreys could be at full strength save one player, would represent the biggest loss. Which single absentee would put the biggest dent in their chances ahead of a crunch Heineken Cup match? It’s a difficult, largely subjective and perhaps unfair call to make, but despite five 2013 Lions in the forward pack there is a strong case to be made for fly-half Dan Biggar. 2012-13 was a breakthrough season for Biggar on the international stage, and he was unfortunate to be the only member of the Welsh starting XV in the memorable Six Nations decider against England not to make the Lions squad. However, he has been one of the main men at the Ospreys since Scott Johnson arrived and installed him as the first choice fly-half four years ago. While his time in the Ospreys’ 10 jersey hasn’t been an uninterrupted success, he has continually learnt and grown, and since Steve Tandy took over as head coach he has delivered a consistently high level of performance and become a key figure in marshalling a young backs division. Also crucial is his excellent goal-kicking, which has rarely wavered in quality since he kicked the Ospreys to a Heineken Cup victory against Perpignan as a teenager.
An injury-crisis in the tight-five last December forced the Ospreys to put some of their academy products to the test ahead of schedule. Fortunately, the results were very encouraging, with the likes of James King and Lloyd Peers impressing in place of eventual Lions-tourists Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans. Nonetheless, the coaches would prefer not to have to do the same again this season. Biggar was instrumental in guiding an inexperienced side to a memorable victory over Toulouse in that difficult period. Should he be the one unavailable, academy products Matthew Morgan and Sam Davies would be next in line to cover one of the most exposed positions on the pitch. Both have talent, and with Biggar likely to be on international duty for around three months of the season, both can expect reasonable opportunity to develop in the Pro12 and LV= Cup. But neither can yet match Biggar’s completeness at fly-half, and his absence ahead of a must-win match would arguably be the biggest blow to the Ospreys’ chances at the current time.
Rising Star: Tom Habberfield
Victories for Welsh sides against their counterparts from New Zealand have been in short supply throughout the history of the game. Three wins in 29 meetings at test level, the last in 1953, as we are reminded every November. Swansea, Newport and Llanelli have claimed their own famous wins over touring All Black sides. The occasional sevens upset. Short supply, and mostly long ago. It’s worth noting, then, that the Ospreys have on their books one of the chief architects of the most recent Welsh win over New Zealand in scrum-half Tom Habberfield. One of a number of Bridgend products in the Ospreys’ squad, Habberfield spent the latter part of last season covering on the wing. The preceding summer, in his natural scrum-half role, he played the general behind a massive forward effort as Wales inflicted a first ever defeat on the Baby Blacks at the Junior World Cup in rain-soaked Stellenbosch.
With new signings adding to the squad’s wing options, Habberfield should be free to return to his preferred position in the upcoming season. He is a capable, balanced athlete and an excellent distributor from hand or with the boot, but Habberfield’s most important attributes are a sharp rugby brain – a feature all too often found in deficit to brawn in Welsh scrum-halves of recent years – and the confidence to put it to use. A pre-season injury will see him side-lined at least until October. When he returns, expect to see a technically and tactically skilful operator, and a strong competitor.
Key Signing: Tito Tebaldi
Kahn Fotuali’i of 2012/13 will be a hard act to follow. While Habberfield will play his part when fit, the majority of the burden for the upcoming season was always likely to fall to Tito Tebaldi, the Italian scrum-half signed from Zebre following the confirmation of Fotuali’i’s move to Northampton Saints. Tebaldi is likely to offer a more orthodox and rounded game from scrum-half, with the intelligence and organisational ability to match his predecessor and a superior kicking game. The trade-off will be the loss of Fotuali’i’s inventiveness, athleticism and excellent breakdown work.
Tebaldi looked confident and sharp in his first appearance in an Ospreys jersey against Worcester Warriors, and the early signs are that he will be a good acquisition for the region. Comparisons with his predecessor are inevitable, but fans won’t have to speculate for long – the two are likely to face-off directly when the Ospreys and Saints meet at Franklin’s Gardens in the Heineken Cup in October.
Make or Break: Ryan Bevington
Even by modern professional standards, Ryan Bevington is an outstanding athlete at prop forward. Anyone in any doubt need only watch his 40 metre finish of a stunning length-of-the-field try as the Ospreys beat Ulster at Ravenhill last February. He caught the eye on several other occasions last season with strong carrying and tackling in the loose, but questions remain over his ability at the scrum. He particularly struggled in the Heineken Cup tie at Welford Road where, rightly or wrongly, Romain Poite took a dislike to his technique. He was shown a yellow card before half-time, and withdrawn in favour of Duncan Jones shortly after the break. To his credit, he grew as the pool progressed, coping well against Toulouse and delivering a much-improved performance when the Tigers visited the Liberty Stadium in January.
With his scrum difficulties having largely come at the hit, this season’s new procedure may better suit his abilities. And while former forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys, a vocal admirer of Bevington, has been praised for his work with the Ospreys’ group of front-row forwards and their performance as a scrummaging unit, new arrival Chris Gibbes may offer a fresh perspective which can help the young prop. Continued improvement would greatly help the Ospreys and could see Bevington, yet to start a test against tier 1 opposition, gain further international recognition. Should progress stall, rivals such as Moldovan Dmitri Arhip and Wales under-20s loosehead Nicky Smith could overtake him in this and coming seasons.