GAVIN HENSON is set for an early exit, according to the bookies, but the current form of the mercurial Welsh back is of no concern to Ospreys head coach Sean Holley. The rugby pitch and not the ballroom floor is the only place that matters to the Welsh region and however their estranged star chooses to spend his time, getting past London Irish, Munster and Toulon is of much more concern than losing out to Ann Widdecombe in Strictly Come Dancing.
When Ospreys visited Thomond Park in September for a Magners League game, Holley was asked for the millionth time about the likelihood of Henson featuring in the Heineken Cup this season. He had crafted his response masterfully.
“No,” he said succinctly.
While certain sections of the media would have us believe that Henson is the only player in the Ospreys’ arsenal, it is obvious there is an array of talent at the disposal of Holley and director of coaching Scott Johnson as they plot a bid to make it four Heineken Cup quarter-final appearances in a row.
As Ospreys prepare for tomorrow’s opener in Toulon, with the backbone of the Wales national team, two former All Black heroes and an Irish wing wizard in their squad, the biggest surprise is that the Welsh regional side has not managed to get past the last eight before. That may be about to change.
“They’ve always had all the weapons,” Munster team manager and former Swansea player Shaun Payne said of the three-time Magners League champions. “They’ve a massive squad, quality players, internationals everywhere. So all it needed was the results to spark the confidence, and I think they have that now.”
The Ospreys head coach is more cautious after successive quarter-final defeats at Saracens, Munster and Biarritz Olympique.
“It definitely does feel like a slow burner,” Holley said. “We’ve taken maybe seven years to build up the squad that we’ve got, we’ve won four titles and been in three [Heineken Cup] quarter-finals and in two of those we’ve been in a position to win. What we haven’t had is a home quarter-final and it shows in these competitions that having home advantage is crucial.
“Whether this will be our year, I don’t know, but funnily enough, I think this is probably the toughest group we’ve ever had. So it’s going to be tough but clearly the side that comes out of it will have deserved to go through.”
Pressed on whether, after those last-eight defeats, the Ospreys’ time has finally come, Holley quickly countered and offered a historical perspective.
“Every season is THE season. People expect.
“It’s not an easy competition. Only a handful of sides have ever won it and then if you look at the semi-finals last year, it’s the usual suspects knocking around – Toulouse, Munster, Leinster, Biarritz. We just want to be in that frame and it’s taken us a while to get in there but how long did it take Leinster and Munster?”
Holley points out how the first two games will set the tone. “We go to Toulon first up and if we can manage to go there and do well, and then come home and perform (against London Irish), then those back-to-backs are magnified because if you can get five-plus points out of your back-to-backs then, after a good start, you’re in the driving seat.”
Wales and Lions lock Alun Wyn Jones will lead the Ospreys out at Stade Félix-Mayol on Saturday in his first season as club captain, wary of the threat posed by an all-star line-up with English fly-half Jonny Wilkinson pulling the strings.
“Hopefully it is going to be our time soon and we will get the big Heineken Cup breakthrough and once we get to a semi-final anything can happen,” Jones said. “It is inevitable that as a fly-half and world class player Jonny Wilkinson is at the heart of almost everything they do and he is certainly going to push their ambitions in the Heineken Cup. We accept it is going to be a tough ask and he is going to be a key man for them.”
Given the other teams in their group, Jones is realistic about the task his side faces. “In a pool like this one it would seem likely that only one team will go through.”