Ospreys 26 Connacht 9: Eli Walker racing into Wales frame
WHEN Connacht last inflicted a home defeat on the Ospreys, Eli Walker was a 12-year-old who could only dream of playing for his home region.
On Saturday, however, he was the star of the show as the Ospreys kept intact their fine record against the Irish province with a bonus-point victory.
It was an efficient performance from Steve Tandy's men, though there were flashes of brilliance — most of which came from Walker.
The 20-year-old wing scored the opening try at the Liberty Stadium and was a constant menace in open play, tearing through the pitch with pace and adventure.
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"He was outstanding," said Ospreys forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys.
"He's a great athlete, he's as quick as anything about and he's playing smart rugby at the moment.
"He's looking to get in the game. We want our wings to be our highest ball-carriers and Eli's always looking for work.
"He's a real positive for us at the moment — don't tell Wales, though!"
Humphreys grinned mischievously when he mentioned Wales, alluding to the ten internationals the Ospreys will be without during the autumn Tests.
Walker, who only returned from a shoulder injury earlier this month, has not yet been called up to the senior national squad but more performances like this will certainly put him on Warren Gatland's radar.
After a somewhat slumberous start to this encounter, Walker brought the game to life as he finished a carefully crafted move for the first try.
The Ospreys' forwards took it in turns to pummel Connacht's defensive line, diligently driving the visitors back until they carved themselves an opening.
Their patience paid off as Dan Biggar spread the ball to Richard Fussell and, although the full-back's pass was a little high, Walker stretched to collect and touched down.
With only 15 minutes gone and the hosts in charge, the Liberty hummed with the expectation of an Ospreys procession.
But any hopes of a free-flowing exhibition from the home side were scuppered by the familiar scourge of a stop-start scrum.
The set-piece was a source of frustration for the Ospreys at Leicester the previous weekend, with the region contacting the European Rugby Cup's head of refereeing to query some of Romain Poite's decisions.
Poite had prompted similar bafflement when in charge of last season's play-off final win at Leinster, and there was another familiar official in place on Saturday.
George Clancy incurred the wrath of the Ospreys' coaches with his interpretations of the scrum during last term's victory away at the Blues, and he did not endear himself to the home crowd with his adjudications here.
The Irishman awarded eight penalties from scrums — four to each side — and the confusion surrounding the set-piece left Humphreys exasperated.
"It's really frustrating," he said. "That game was littered with stop-start infringements at reset scrums, for and against."
With the staggered set-pieces puncturing the game's flow, Connacht took advantage of the lull in action with two penalties from Dan Parks.
It was not long, however, before the Ospreys replenished their lead.
Fussell was the architect of the second try, running on to the ball some 40 metres out and scything through a static Connacht defensive line.
The full-back passed to Hanno Dirksen and the wing then offloaded to flanker Justin Tipuric, who dived over in the corner.
With Biggar missing his conversion, the Ospreys led 12-6 at half-time but they wasted little time in adding to that advantage after the break.
Just 90 seconds into the second half, Jonathan Thomas intercepted a Parks pass to canter clear for the Ospreys' third try.
Parks struck another penalty to keep Connacht in touch at 19-9, though the hosts could have secured their bonus point just before the hour mark.
Retrieving a bouncing ball in his own 22, Walker turned and, with a couple of snaky-hipped swivels a salsa dancer would have approved of, the wing left three Connacht defenders trailing.
The 20-year-old then scorched clear, swerving past another two would-be tacklers and breaking into the Connacht 22, where he passed to the supporting Tipuric.
The flanker's pass to Kahn Fotuali'i was unsuccessful, however, and the breathless attack came to nothing.
The Ospreys were not to be denied in their pursuit of a bonus point. Awarded a penalty in an eminently kickable position, the reigning champions declined the three points and punted the ball to the corner.
Connacht repelled the initial onslaught but, from another penalty moments later, Fotuali'i took a quick tap and shrugged off two visiting defenders as he powered over the line.
There was a satisfying sense of a job done — a bonus point bagged and a fourth successive win the RaboDirect Pro12 for the reigning champions.
Having come close to toppling English champions Harlequins the previous weekend and beaten Leinster last month, Connacht had proven prior to this fixture their taste for an upset. But the Ospreys had not lost at home to the Irish side since a 10-9 defeat at The Gnoll in November 2004, and a repeat seldom looked likely on this occasion.
With their three defeats from the opening three league fixtures an increasingly distant memory, Tandy's men appear to be gathering momentum.
The Ospreys have not lost three league games at home since the 2008-09 season and, even then, the third reverse did not arrive until April.
If they manage to keep their current record intact, the history books will make encouraging reading for Tandy and his players.
After losing their first two home fixtures of the 2009-10 season — against Ulster and Leinster — the Ospreys went on to win the league with a memorable play-off final victory away at Leinster.
They were defeated at home to Ulster and Glasgow this term but, if they can sustain the clinical edge they showed against Connacht, the omens are promising for a successful title defence.