Fussell backs the young guns to make their mark
AS the elder statesman in the Ospreys' back three, Richard Fussell is ideally placed to pass judgement on whether the region's young guns are ready to fire in the Heineken Cup.
Hanno Dirksen, Eli Walker, Tom Grabham and Ross Jones are part of the 90s brigade at the Liberty, players born in the decade of the Spice Girls, Friends and Cool Cymru.
At 28, Fussell has the experience and street smartness to provide direction and a calming influence for those around him.
Does he believe the Ospreys' very own Spice Boys are ready for the toughest test in northern hemisphere rugby outside the Test scene?
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Sunday, May 26 2013
"I think they are ready," he said.
"They are intelligent boys who know what they need to do. All of them are progressing well.
"Hanno is a very direct player who will always make ground with ball in hand.
"If you ask him to run through a brick wall, he will do exactly that, while Tom is a very elusive guy, a great player who is Shane-esque. And Eli Walker is getting back up to speed after his injury. He's another great prospect, lightning quick and an incredible raw talent.
"These guys will bring a lot to the table."
There are plenty more who have come off the same conveyor belt as Dirksen, Walker, Grabham and Jones, among them Ashley Beck, Matthew Morgan and Sam Lewis, other members of the PlayStation generation. They are united by their talent as well as their ages.
As a Wales international, Beck has already broken through.
He possesses the priceless gift of time, while Morgan remains a devastating broken-field runner, and if you wanted someone to stop a runaway truck Lewis is your man, a player who always makes his tackles.
Little wonder Ryan Jones was moved to say at the region's press call this week: "We've prepared well and there are a lot of guys here who are pushing to play.
"I think you will see over the next few weeks that we've unearthed some real stars who will go on to serve the Ospreys over a long period and probably Wales as well."
The challenge for the Pro12 champions is to blend the youthful enthusiasm with the battle-hardened experience in their ranks. If they can do that, they will be a handful for any side — including Toulouse.
The French aristocrats are always there or thereabouts in Europe and there is Leicester in Pool 2 as well, plus Treviso, who are in Swansea on Friday evening.
But the Ospreys are quietly confident they are a fermenting a potent brew at the Liberty.
"I think we're blessed," said assistant coach Gruff Rees.
"We have a damn fine pack, power in the front five and a great blend in the back row, which is just as well as we will face a top-level European back row on Friday evening.
"But I'm excited to see how people like Ashley Beck, Richard Fussell, Andrew Bishop, Daniel Biggar all kick on with their games having found form. They have a lot of top-level experience but I think it's important they stay aspirational about getting better, playing for the Ospreys and in European competition.
"There is another tier, with people like Tom Isaacs, Eli Walker, who is in great physical shape, and Tom Grabham. Those boys and others are benefiting from opportunities. We expect them to shine as the season unfolds."
From his vantage point of No. 15, Fussell is able to cast a sharp eye over all before him. He is in his third season at the Ospreys, having joined them from the Dragons. He passed his half-century of appearances for the Liberty team last season and is enjoying his rugby — and relishing his role as senior man at the back.
"I think I'm the oldest by three or four years in the back three," he said.
"I hope I can share my experience with the younger guys and bring them on as individuals as well as a collective back-three unit.
"You improve as a player as you get older and I think it's great for everyone in the squad to help each other. If the youngsters can learn a bit off senior players they push you and the team benefits. So it's a win-win situation.
"I'm enjoying my rugby. I have a great team around me, a great backline, with young wingers coming through and young full-backs. It's good because it puts pressure on me to perform."
Fussell has been on song in recent weeks, not only setting tries up but scoring them as well — touchdowns coming for the former Dragon against Munster and Zebre. When he arrived at the Liberty he could have been forgiven for feeling dazzled by the constellation of stars at the region, but he has worked hard at his game and commands the respect of the region's coaches and players.
"It's interesting for me to see the transition in Fuss," added Rees.
"When I was development and skills coach here I worked closely with him and he probably saw himself as a squad filler, given the number of big characters who were here at the time.
"Perhaps he was in many ways.
"But things have changed and he has become a key figure — partly because we've lost players but also through his own endeavours and performances in an Ospreys shirt.
"He helps us get in good positions tactically because of his positioning, how he works with his wingers and how he works with ball in hand.
"He has provided a serious amount of tries — Munster in the semi-final last year, Leinster in the final, the Scarlets game this season. He has had assists. He is at the end of things and makes good decisions."
Sporting new red headgear this season — "I picked up a few stitches in training, so I thought I'd wear a guard for extra protection" — Fussell is starting to stand out.
The Ospreys will hope he does so against Treviso.