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PETER JACKSON: Beware the dangers of a trip to Wales

Guinness PRO12 Editor

8 May 2012

Munster will not need reminding this week that South Wales can be a dangerous place when it comes to defending a title.

They lost the biggest one of all there five years ago as champions of Europe, a quarter-final against the Scarlets in Llanelli proving one defence too far of the trophy they had won under Anthony Foley at the Millennium Stadium the previous year.

Even the darkest cloud that night had a silver lining, not that those packing into the condemned Stradey Park from Limerick, Cork and various places in between will recall seeing it at the time. Munster bounced off the ropes and finished the following season back at Cardiff’s monumental rugby shrine for another winning Heineken final at the expense of another French club, Toulouse.

Their campaign for a third European conquest having come to grief a few weeks ago, the Red Army march 40 miles west from the Welsh capital to put their Celtic crown on the line at the Liberty Stadium on Friday night. The holders must beat the Ospreys there in the first RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final if they are to make it all the way to a second successive Grand Final.

The Welsh region, the legitimate nine-year-old off-spring of a shotgun marriage between the All Blacks of Neath and the All Whites of Swansea, were in Munster’s role of defending champions when they ran into each other at the same stage of the play-offs twelve months ago. There are two significant differences between then and now.

Munster were at Thomond Park and they made home advantage count, just as they had done a few months earlier against the Ospreys in Europe despite losing Paul O’Connell to a red card. Secondly, the team awaiting them on home territory in Swansea will be barely recognisable from the one seen off this time last year by two tries from Danny Barnes and the usual barrage of goals from Ronan O’Gara.

The recession which has hit the four Welsh regions for six has arguably left a deeper mark on the Ospreys than anywhere else. No fewer than nine of the team responsible for the not inconsiderable feat of outplaying Leinster at the RDS in the 2010 Grand Final have gone, their collective off-load a classic case of cost-cutting.

Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and James Hook have been plying a more lucrative trade in France since returning from the World Cup last autumn. Another Osprey, hooker Huw Bennett, will be taking the same flight across the Channel this summer to try his luck at Lyon.

The All Black trinity of Marty Holah, Jerry Collins and Filo Tiatia have gone – Holah home to New Zealand, his compatriots to Japan. Scotland’s Nikki Walker, a long-term injury casualty this season, will be on the other side of the Severn Bridge next season at Worcester and Tommy Bowe back whence he came with Ulster at Ravenhill.

The changes have not been confined to the team. Scott Johnson, the director of rugby, left in the New Year en route to joining Scotland and the Australian had barely departed than the head coach, Sean Holley, had gone, too.

And that’s where Steve Tandy came in. Far from scouring the world for a new head coach with a suitable track record, Andrew Hore, in his capacity as Ospreys’ Chief Operations Officer, offered the job to a recently retired back row forward on his own doorstep.

Rather than continue the uneven struggle of trying to dislodge Holah from the openside of the back row, Tandy decided the time was right to start his coaching apprenticeship by taking charge of Bridgend, one of those famous clubs fallen on hard times since the advent of professionalism.

He made such an impressive fist of the job that when the region needed a head coach to run their rejuvenated team, they sent for Tandy. ‘When Andrew asked me if I wanted the job, I jumped at the chance,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t wait to get started., We were disappointed to lose a lot of those guys but at least we went through the changes earlier than the other regions. Some are now going through the same process.’

To say he inherited a team on the up would be stretching a point. The Ospreys lost one Welsh derby on Boxing Day, 22-14 to the Scarlets, and another in the New Year, to the Dragons at Rodney Parade, before a 36-5 pasting down in Biarritz ended another European misadventure.

Despite the demoralising background, Tandy wasted no time changing the mood from the day he took charge in mid-February. Six wins in eight matches under his direction gave them the luxury of securing second place behind Leinster and the other home semi-final before completing last weekend’s final fixture of the regular season, against Aironi.

What’s more, they have scored more tries (22) in those eight matches than in the previous 14 – not bad considering all the comings and goings which led to Tandy’s appointment at the age of 32. Before his first training session, nobody could be sure how many more would be leaving.

As Tandy put it, ‘there was a sense then of: ‘Who’s going to be next out of the door? My first job was to settle everyone down, to make sure the training environment was positive and that when we did play, we had a real crack at the opposition.’

They’ve been making such a good fist of it that the fans have come back in their droves. Almost 14,500 turned up for the last home game, an emphatic win over the Dragons crowned by the sort of last-minute solo try which only Shane Williams could conjure on what was billed as his last home match.

While that turned out to be a touch premature, Munster will be very wary lest the little magician does it again and the holders disappear in a puff of smoke…