Depleted Ospreys face daunting trip to Ulster
IF the likelihood of winning at Ravenhill is slim at the best of times, the prospect of doing so with almost an entire squad's worth of players missing is remote.
Those are the circumstances in which the Ospreys will find themselves in Belfast tomorrow, as they prepare to face last season's Heineken Cup runners-up Ulster with more than 20 absentees.
No visiting team has won at Ravenhill in the RaboDirect Pro12 this season, and the chances of Steve Tandy's side doing so have been damaged by a raft of international call-ups and injuries.
Ulster, meanwhile, can beckon the likes of capped South African pair Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller, who will provide more than a fair sprinkling of Test rugby class in the absence of the province's Six Nations contingent.
It is a striking contrast, and one which is not lost on the Ospreys' assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys.
"We've got more than 20 boys unavailable because of internationals and injuries," he says.
"We're being really tested with the strength of our squad and we know this period is vital to us.
"It helps to have the luxury of being able to call upon foreign international players at this point.
"People like Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Robbie Diack are hugely talented. It's a very strong squad.
"They're able to perform close to the same level when their international players are away — that's the beauty of having a very strong squad."
As well as the might of an Ulster side which has lost only one Pro12 match this season — away at former European champions Munster — the Ospreys will also have to contend with an intimidating Ravenhill atmosphere.
The Belfast venue is regarded as one of European rugby's most daunting arenas, but the Ospreys might be less affected by its reputation than most.
On their last two visits to Ravenhill, the reigning Pro12 champions have only lost by a single point and, having won there in 2009 and 2010, they will be hopeful of upsetting the odds this weekend.
"They're really passionate at Ravenhill. It's somewhere where we've had success before," Humphreys adds.
"We've gone out there and won in trying circumstances, and this will be no different.
"We understand the task that's in front of us. It's going to be a huge ask for a lot of our players.
"We're going to be playing boys out of position, especially in the backline where we'll have a scrum-half on the wing — simply because we don't have anyone else there.
"These boys are doing a fantastic job but it will be a huge ask for them.
"It's a very vocal crowd but when you're on the field you don't really take notice of it."
This will be the Ospreys' first Pro12 fixture since January 4, with the Heineken Cup and LV= Cup taking precedence over the past month.
The latter competition saw the region field experimental sides in an effort to give their youngsters some precious experience.
And while those selections might have been voluntary in the LV= Cup, the Ospreys' long list of absentees means they might have place faith in their youngsters again tomorrow.
"We've been delighted with the efforts of a lot of these players," says Humphreys.
"Guys like Morgan Allen, Sam Williams and Marc Thomas — it's pleasing to see these guys coming through.
"It's a real difficult time with the injuries and call-ups we have.
"In the past we've been able to field strong sides but the teams we have now are very inexperienced. It's what we've got to do but we're lucky to have so much talent coming through."