Big name departures and poor recruitment – how a perfect storm could end up splintering the Ospreys

There is a sizeable difference between Rhys Webb reportedly being touted around French and English clubs and the Wales and Lions scrum-half signing on the dotted line for a Toulon, a Montpellier or a Saracens.

But all the same, the prospect of Webb leaving the Ospreys when his present national dual contract expires at the end of the season has to be seen as very real.

He is 29 in December, he has lost too much of his career to injuries and he has achieved a huge amount in international rugby in the last three years. He is also undisputed first choice in his position for his country.

If Webb has therefore concluded that next summer will be his last chance to sample a different environment and secure a deal more lucrative than anything available in Wales, then who is to begrudge him?

But there are two strands to this.

Webb’s personal career fulfilment is one; the mounting concern about the potential splintering of the Ospreys squad is another.

Given the angst about the current form of the team and the doubts being expressed by sections of the Region’s fan-base about Steve Tandy being in charge until 2020, speculation about the departure of key players is the last thing anyone at the Liberty Stadium will want to hear, as inevitable as it may be.

Is Rhys Webb on his way?

The fact that Webb, Dan Biggar and Dimitri Arhip are the names involved will only deepen the anxiety.

Biggar’s plans to join Northampton next season were reported weeks ago. It appears this one is genuine rather than just paper talk.

The player hasn’t denied it, Northampton haven’t denied it and Tandy has spoken about how confident he is that Biggar will put the move out of his mind for the remaining time he is with the Ospreys. It’s therefore hard to see it not happening.

Last Friday it was tighthead Arhip who was making the headlines. According to reputable French media sources the Moldovan is joing Montpellier for the 2018-19 campaign for a salary of £500,000 a year.

Arguably, his loss would be felt by the Ospreys more keenly than either Biggar or Webb. Arhip hasn’t just been fantastic on the field for the Region he is also a hugely popular and committed figure around the squad environment.

Nothing, as far as we understand, has been signed by Biggar, Webb or Arhip, but if the Ospreys lose all three of them it would take some getting over.

You’re talking about a set of Lions half-backs and a prop with not just an extraordinary work-rate but also a real appetite for scrummaging.

The Ospreys, of course, have Sam Davies as an option at outside-half and it was only a few short months ago that a lot of people wanted him in the Wales starting XV instead of Biggar. But Biggar has been the focal point of Ospreys strategy now for more than half a decade. His departure could not be sugar-coated in any way.

As for Webb, his back-up comes in the form of veteran Kiwi Brendan Leonard, whose best days are behind him, and Tom Habberfield, who played well last season but does not have the X-Factor the Lions man boasts.

Players come and go in professional sport, but when you lose those that are pivotal, those around which you build a team, and you lose them at the same time, you have a problem.

Well, you do unless you have recruitment so sussed that you are able to find comparable alternatives capable of making any transition look as seamless as possible.

And there’s the rub…name a top Ospreys signing since Arhip and full-back Dan Evans came on board three years ago, one that has proved a real hit.

Dan Lydiate? Not really done much and suffered with injuries. Bradley Davies the same. Then we’re into the likes of Ma’afu Fia, Kieron Fonotia, Hugh Gustafson, Rhodri Jones, Rob McCusker, Brian Mujati…

Dan Biggar of Ospreys looks dejected
Has Dan Biggar’s Ospreys journey entered the home strait?

With respect to all of the above, what impact have they made? How have they improved the Ospreys?

Is it therefore an exaggeration to say the next six months, given the prospect of who they might lose, are the most important in the Ospreys’ history as regards them retaining a squad capable of regular Champions Cup rugby and Guinness PRO14 play-off involvement? I don’t think so.

Nobody expects Tandy to suddenly be showered with cash and told to go and cherry pick the best in Europe. The cash constraint at all the Regions is well enough known.

But there’s more to evolving a playing roster than chucking money about. You need contacts, nous and knowledge – and you need those things more than ever when money is tight.

If you want an example of those qualities bearing fruit then just look at what Johnny McNicholl and Hadleigh Parkes have done for the Scarlets.

Neither would have come cheap, but neither were exactly household names when they were signed, and what does the influence they have had west of the Loughor Bridge tell you about Wayne Pivac’s experience in making the right choices?

You then turn to that Ospreys contingent above, which contains several established international players, and you’re struggling to recall any sustained and telling contribution. As for new arrivals Cory Allen, James Hook and Guy Mercer, time will tell. But Tandy needs them to fire, particularly Allen and Hook.

The Ospreys have already had one season in the European Challenge Cup. Their crown for being Wales’ best team has already turned into thorns.

The Liberty die-hards can dress things up as much as they like, but their team is on a slide that, on reflection, has probably been more gradual than might have at first appeared.

If they lose Webb, Biggar and Arhip and don’t replace them adequately, they will find that slide starts to pick up speed.

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