Ospreys seek to feather nest with silverware

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Once synonymous with endangered birdlife, the Ospreys reach a fresh stage in their campaign to instead associate their name with sporting success as they play in Sunday’s EDF Energy Anglo-Welsh Cup final at Twickenham. They clash there with another species of concern to the World Wildlife Fund, the Tigers of Leicester.

In the second season of a three-year experiment in cross-border co-operation, the Cup still has an equivocal place in the calendar and the priorities of both fans and players. English voices in particular are frequently heard to suggest that better use might be found for five precious weekends in an extremely crowded season.

Leicester, though, have yet to find a trophy they are not committed to winning. And the Ospreys will be watched from Wales with interest that extends well beyond a catchment area concentrated around Swansea and Neath.

Wales is now in the fourth year of its switch to regional franchises, and the Ospreys can reasonably claim to be the flagbearer for the new dispensation – the only one in which the pooling of resources has produced a fresh identity and outcomes greater than the sum of previous parts.

Llanelli and Cardiff have continued along more or less the same lines, the Dragons have been wracked by conflict between their Newport centre and the Gwent peripheries, and the uneasy shotgun marriage between Bridgend and Pontypridd was dissolved by Welsh Rugby Union diktat after a single season, leaving a vacuum now being filled by the lively Celtic Crusaders rugby league club.

This is not to say that everything has gone well with the Ospreys. It can be argued that, given the depth of talent – Gavin Henson, Shane Williams and props Adam and Duncan Jones – they should have qualified for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup at some time in those four seasons. They missed out this season with the best record by a non-qualifier in several years.

While only Ulster consistently outdraw them in the Celtic League, their average crowd of just under 9,000 for league matches at the Liberty Stadium is somewhat below the 12,000 that groundsharers Swansea City attract for a less distinguished standard of football.

They have, though, taken on the challenge of creating a new identity and fresh allegiances. It undoubtedly helped that there was little historical enmity between Swansea and Neath. With the Swansea club moribund at the time of the merger there was no danger of Neath, a much smaller town, being swamped in the process.

The 21,000 capacity Liberty Stadium is new, well appointed and neutral territory – in Swansea, but at the Neath end of the city with easy access.

Trouble was also taken to design a shirt incorporating the distinctive features of both clubs – Swansea’s white and Neath’s black with Maltese cross. And it is the shirt that has been the club’s greatest success yet – a sale of 40,000 last year making it the bestseller among British club shirts, almost twice as many as Leicester, England’s leading kit purveyors.

Ospreys have also produced the first authentic star, outside-half James Hook, who is more identified with a region than a predecessor club. Making his Twickenham debut, he will be crucial to Ospreys hopes as they attempt to impose their high-tempo, fast-moving, offloading game on the Tigers, past masters of playing at their own pace and shutting down quick opponents.

The Welsh managed to do this twice, though not without long periods of doubt, in last year’s Heineken Cup, but Tigers coach Pat Howard has warned that Ospreys are a better team now.

They will want to prove him right amid a clash of styles that would intrigue even if this were not a Twickenham cup final.

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