A year after a slow start doomed their Guinness PRO12 play-off chances, the Ospreys are desperate to avoid falling into the same trap – starting with a home clash with Zebre on Friday night.
Last season the Welsh side lost five of their first six matches, and in the end left themselves too much to do to get back in contention for a play-off place.
But having recruited well over the summer, head coach Steve Tandy is confident the Welsh region can make a strong start to their campaign.
He said: “It’s been a positive pre-season, we’ve had a couple of really good run-outs and are in a pretty good position going into the opening weekend.
“Everybody is ready to go now, we understand that all the work up to this point has been about preparing, making sure we are ready to hit the ground running from the very first whistle on Friday night.
“It’s important that we get the performance right in these opening weeks to give us a solid platform to build from for the rest of the season.
“It’s not about the opposition, it’s about how we prepare, making sure the attention to detail is there in everything we do, and being accurate.
“Get those things right and we are heading in the right direction.
“We know that nothing is won in September, but what last season showed is that if we don’t get the basics right early on then it makes life very difficult as the season progresses. We don’t want to be in that position again.
“It’s great to be kicking off at home, in front of our own supporters, who can help us get off to a good start.
“We know that Zebre will provide a physical challenge for us, they’ve recruited well over the summer, bringing in some key players, and with the changes in Italian rugby over the summer, will definitely be up for it.
“We know that we’ve got to match their physicality while sticking to the task, and we are really looking forward to getting stuck into it.”
Tom Habberfield will captain the Ospreys from scrum-half, linking up with Sam Davies, while a back three of Eli Walker, Jeff Hassler and Dan Evans will look to cause Zebre problems out wide.
Up front Justin Tipuric is fit to take his place in the starting lineup, alongside Olly Cracknell and Tyler Ardron in the back row, while Hugh Gustafson and Bradley Davies will make their Ospreys’ debuts if they come off the bench.
They will face a Zebre team featuring ten internationals capped by new Italy head coach Conor O’Shea, with another four named on the bench.
Like last season, a long trip awaits Zebre who will remain in Wales for ten days to prepare for their second consecutive Welsh away game of the season in Newport next Friday.
Gianluca Guidi can call upon experienced No.8 Dries van Schalkwyk, Zebre’s top try-scorer last season after he recovered from an injury suffered with the national team over the summer.
Former Highlanders and All Blacks Seven captain Kurt Baker will make his official debut at full-back.
Also fly-half Carlo Canna is back in action after one week of rest due to a light muscle strain during the friendly match lost to Munster two weeks ago.
Captain George Biagi said: “It’s going to be tough, we have a full week in Wales at the Ospreys and then Newport.
“Hopefully we can come back with a few points and then we have Connacht and Cardiff at home. The big difference is having the full week in Wales to avoid the two extra flights.
“It’s important for the season to start and if we get some good performances we’ll get a few more people through the gates when we play Connacht.”
At Liberty Stadium, 7:35pm. Live on BBC Wales
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU, 12th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Stuart Gaffikin (IRFU), Gareth Newman (WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Aurwell Morgan (WRU)
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)
The Ospreys were targeting a fast start after stuttering out of the gate a year ago and they did just that with a brilliant 59-5 Guinness PRO12 win over Zebre at the Liberty Stadium with a hat-trick from the most unlikely of sources.
Sam Parry bookended the first half with two tries from mauls, as the Welsh side wrapped up a bonus point before the break, completing his treble early in the second half.
And the Welsh team managed eight tries in all, as Ben John got a second-half double in a brilliant display in Swansea.
It was Sam Davies who opened the home side’s account, slotting an early penalty for Steve Tandy’s men, and they quickly extended that lead.
Turning to their maul, which would be a key feature of the first half, hooker Parry was on hand to crash over, with Davies making it two kicks from two to stretch the lead to ten.
The second try wasn’t long coming, and this time it was the athleticism of second row Lloyd Ashley that was the key. After Zebre had rushed up in defence, Josh Matavesi took advantage to stride forward.
Although the covering defence got back to him, Ashley was inside and after a quick turn found himself in open field and raced 20 yards to score. From the touchline Davies continued his fine kicking evening with the conversion.
It was in danger of getting away from Zebre when Ospreys scored a third try, Ashley Beck slipping out of the tackle of Giulio Bisegni to cross, and Davies making it 24-0 with the extras.
But they finally got some possession and were rewarded for it just after the half-hour.
Having been held up just short with one rolling maul, they went back to that tactic from an attacking lineout and Tommaso D’Apice powered over. Edoardo Padovani’s conversion was sliced wide.
Still, Parry had the final say of the half, as a second Ospreys rolling maul ended with him bursting through the middle and over the line.
Davies converted to make it 31-5 at the break, and with a tactic that was working they stuck at it in the second.
Parry was again the man at the back of a powerful maul, and dotted down for the first hat-trick of the Guinness PRO12 season on the very first evening.
Davies converted once again, and then played his part in setting up John for the sixth, with the centre strolling through in midfield.
Zebre were very much on the back foot, and their cause wasn’t helped when their indiscipline led to a yellow card for replacement Tommaso Boni, leaving them with 14 just after the hour.
The Ospreys made them pay, with a seventh try coming through Dafydd Howells after he showed his pace with the Zebre defence scrambling to make it a half-century.
And John finished the game in style with his second, converted by Davies to seal a dream opening performance from the Welsh region.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final
3 Sep 2016
1 Sep 2016