Head to Head
Whilst the Ospreys have an impressive lead over Cardiff in head to head fixtures over the years (the team from Swansea has won 11 out of the 18 fixtures played), these two teams have only met in a top tier game at Cardiff Arms Park once since 2008. Of those eleven games, eight have been in the various incarnations of the Pro14, with Nigel Owens refereeing six. Last season’s thumping of the “visitors” was their first defeat in Cardiff since New Years Day in 2010. Once more, these two sides will face each other in the last league game of the season, so often a dead rubber, but even more so this season. Having alienated season ticket holders with their bizarre stance on seating allocation, the WRU continue to schedule this fixture at a non-sensical time of the season when a more meaningful clash could provide a serious commercial boost to both clubs. The Ospreys disastrous season has seen a drop of over 30,000 in the Pro14 gate (a fall over almost 30%). In only two fixtures did the attendance increase on last season’s (Connacht and Zebre). The just under 70,000 who have attended home fixtures this season is the worst cumulative crowd figure since the 2004-5 season. On the back of the disaster in Rodney Parade, the plight of the Ospreys only underlines that as the influence of the WRU in the running of pro-rugby teams increases, Welsh rugby’s plight is worsening. And let’s not also forget that Cardiff’s gates have also been poor this season in the Pro14. They are down 7,ooo on last season (excluding the final fixture) – and gates at five of their home fixtures are less than last season.
Under Gatland’s directions, no fewer than nine of the Ospreys squad have dual contracts with the WRU, which represents a subsidy of around £1m to their playing squad (though these figures are extremely difficult to track down and hence remain an estimate). This makes the Ospreys the most subsidised team in Wales – apart from the Dragons, of course – but nevertheless (or maybe because of this) they have suffered one of their worst ever seasons. Having taken over from Steve Tandy in January, Ulsterman Allen Clarke has been in charge at Swansea for nine games. So far, he has yet to lead his team to an away victory. In selecting a largely second string outfit, Danny Wilson has done his best to break this run of defeats in what is his penultimate game in charge.
Thirty six year old Frank Murphy is an ex-Munster and Connacht scrum half who is in his second season as a professional referee. This season, he’s refereed Cardiff on four occasions, with only a narrow defeat to Glasgow ending in victory for Cardiff. He’s also ref’d the Ospreys twice – once for their home victory over Glasgow, and once in their heavy defeat in Bloemfontein. Murphy averages 21 penalties per game, which puts him hear the top of the table. However, when it comes to issuing cards, he’s more mid-table with only 0.8 per game. If this game had been played at the Arms Park, Cardiff would have enjoyed the biggest homer in the league, with 79% of games refereed by Murphy resulting in home wins.
Attack rankings for the Ospreys this season offer miserable reading. Only Munster and the Scarlets have made fewer breaks per game, and their offloading game is not much better. When it comes to meters run with ball in hand, only one of the worst team ever to feature in a Celtic Rugby competition – the Kings – have carried the ball less. Even the Dragons have a higher figure. No small wonder that the Ospreys have managed only 42 tries this season (as opposed to 73 last season). This is the fewest number of tries they’ve scored since 2008-9 when they participated in a ten-team competition. The Ospreys are the most inefficient team in the competition for turning possession into points – averaging a point every 2.32 minutes …. it takes the team more than one minute longer to score a point than it does the Cheetahs. Could this be linked to the drop in crowds?
Both teams have similar records at scrum time this season, and both a equally proficient at the lineout. If this game was to be played by the two strongest possible teams at the respective clubs, we could they would cancel each other out at the set piece.
Throughout this season, despite their ineffective attack and general lack of creativity, the Ospreys tackle stats have been mighty impressive. In defeat to Ulster in the last round and in victory over Connacht, they topped that round’s rankings on number of completed tackles. In that defeat in Belfast, the Ospreys managed to secure only 20% of territory – the second lowest percentage of any team since 5th September 2014 in the Pro14. Cardiff also have impressive tackle stats – averaging 87% completion rate across all competitive fixtures this season. But they still lag behind the Ospreys’ highly impressive 89%. Despite their individual efforts, overall so far this season, collectively the Ospreys have conceded 91 tries – by some distance their worst ever season. This represents almost twice the number of tries they conceded last season. As individuals they maybe performing well, but collectively ….?
The Ospreys are a mid-table team when it comes to yellow cards conceded. Cardiff – meanwhile – have conceded 13 cards, five more than their Swansea-based opponents, and are carded once every 16 penalties, as opposed to the Ospreys 22. And it’s not only the number of cards that separates the two teams. Cardiff concede 10.7 penalties per game on average, whereas the Ospreys are conceding only 8.8. This translates to 38 fewer penalties over the Pro14 season as whole.
The Ospreys are the most successful Welsh team in Celtic Rugby since 2003 and the third most successful overall. Between the 2012-13 season and 2015-16 season, they were Welsh Conference Table champions. But since then, despite the squad subsidy and influence from Gatland, results have worsened. It is the Scarlets who now reign supreme and look set to make a clean sweep of local victories – only the second team to do this in since the modern era began in 2003 (the Ospreys achieved this feat in 2012-13 and 2013-14). Sadly, thanks to poor scheduling, this fixture has once more been devalued and with a far more important game next week, Danny Wilson has chosen a second string. In contrast, Clarke’s selection is close to his strongest. Given the history of this fixture and the relative strengths of the two starting XVs, this should be an easy victory for the Ospreys. However, there have shown major collective weaknesses this season and Cardiff’s second choice will feel they have a chance to win this one.