By Steffan Thomas
They once boasted one of the strongest playing rosters in European rugby and were famously labelled the ‘Galacticos’ of Welsh rugby.
But the Ospreys’ opening Heineken Champions Cup 32-13 defeat to Munster this weekend – a loss so predictable to many there was some relief that it could have been worse – only underlined the gap they now have to make up.
The start of Europe at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday came at the worst possible time for the Ospreys with 18 players unavailable due to a combination of a World Cup rest period and injuries.
Unlike in other countries, the majority of Wales’ World Cup stars have been given between four and six weeks off to recuperate from the physical and mental exertions of rugby’s global showpiece which ended with a heart-breaking semi-final defeat to eventual winners South Africa.
So, it was left to the non-Welsh supporting cast – and here, times have changed.
With the majority of the Wales squad which won Six Nations Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012 employed by the Ospreys and a glut of world class overseas signings such as All Blacks great Jerry Collins, Marty Holah, Filo Tiatia, Tommy Bowe and Steffan Terblanche also in their squad, the strength in depth at the Liberty Stadium was the envy of many others.
They may not have gone past the quarter-final stage in Europe, but the Swansea-based region won a then record four Guinness PRO12 titles.
Sadly for Ospreys supporters, those days have well and truly been consigned to the history books.
Many of the side’s problems today can be traced back to the creation of Welsh rugby’s Professional Rugby Board (PRB) in 2018 which includes members of the Welsh Rugby Union, two independent members, and the chairmen of all four Welsh regions.
The PRB took the decision to cut their budget by close on a million pounds to £6.3m – over a million less than arch-rivals Scarlets.
They still boast a host of star players including Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones and his fellow internationals Justin Tipuric, Adam Beard, Bradley Davies, Dan Lydiate, Nicky Smith and Gareth Anscombe.
But the brutal truth right now is the Ospreys have an unbalanced squad which lacks the strength in depth to compete for silverware.
Due to the way the northern hemisphere season is structured, it is the sides with the best international window squads who typically reach the play-offs.
But the Ospreys management seem to have ignored this fact and have instead opted to strengthen their starting XV rather than the whole, which was typified by the signing of Wales outside-half Anscombe, whose knee injury suffered in August has ruled him out for the entire season.
When the Ospreys were successful in the past they had a core group of players who were available all year long such as Collins, Hollah, Tiatia, Jason Spice, Nicky Walker and Kahn Fotuali’i.
That is no longer the case with not enough high-quality non-Welsh qualified players to steady the ship during the international window.
Many supporters have pointed the finger at Allen Clarke. After all, the buck does stop with the head coach.
But the Ospreys’ demise goes a lot deeper than their coaching set-up and general manager Andrew Millward, who took control in 2016, has big questions to answer.
Since Millward took the reins, the region’s fortunes have plummeted.
Millward is the man in charge of hiring and firing coaches while he also has the final say in recruiting players. And it doesn’t seem like he has learnt the lessons of the Ospreys’ recent failures with the Welsh region heavily chasing the signature of Wales and Saracens full-back Liam Williams.
Should he arrive, it will do nothing to improve the depth in their squad given his international responsibilities.
The Ospreys came within 24 hours of going out of existence last season when they were almost forced to merge with bitter rivals the Scarlets.
Their most prominent benefactor Rob Davies swooped in to save the day by taking over the chairmanship and telling the Scarlets and the PRB in no uncertain terms they were there to stay.
Now, the mental fortitude of this Ospreys squad is being seriously tested with Clarke having described their mood as being “at the bottom of the pit” following their embarrassing recent home defeat at the hands of South African whipping boys Southern Kings.
With the region’s very future having been thrown into question earlier this year, doubts persist over their long-term viability.
Welsh rugby is scratching its head over how to bridge the funding gap between themselves and their wealthier PRO14 and European rivals.
Rumours abound over the potential of two fully funded Welsh regions and two semi-skimmed versions which would take the form of development teams.
This is all conjecture at the moment, but what is certain is that the Ospreys are in a very precarious position on and off the field.
Such speculation has spilled on to the field with Clarke’s side winning just one of their opening six PRO14 fixtures.
Given their unavailable players and the toxic atmosphere surrounding the region, it would constitute one of the biggest shocks in the history of European rugby if they were to progress from Pool 4.