Ospreys brave bruising battle
THE scene on Worcester Warriors' team bus might have called to mind the clip from the film Airplane! when the stewardess addresses the passengers over the intercom, having seen the captain, his co-pilot and the navigator pass out after being hit by a virus.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your stewardess speaking," she says.
"We regret any inconvenience the sudden cabin movement might have caused. This is due to periodic air pockets we encountered.
"There's no reason to become alarmed and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight.
"By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"
Cut to the M5 last Saturday morning and the driver of the Warriors' team coach has alerted Dean Ryan that there is smoke coming from the back of the bus and the vehicle is, in fact, on fire.
Let Jonathan Thomas, formerly of the Ospreys but now with Worcester, take up the story. "Dean Ryan came on the microphone and said: 'Nobody panic but the bus is on fire and you need to get off as quickly as you can.'
"We looked back and could see the back of the bus in flames.
"There was that split second where you thought that if the engine was on fire it could explode.
"We're lucky to be alive."
Fortunately, everyone was evacuated swiftly, and eventually another coach arrived to ferry the Warriors' players down to Swansea for their date with the Ospreys.
Home players then lent boots and kit to some of their opponents, while other Warriors personnel took the field in shorts and jerseys that had more than a faint whiff of fumes and smoke about them.
But if any of the visiting players were suffering from shock, they didn't show it as they climbed into the Ospreys from the first whistle, carrying strongly and tackling as if the Liberty Stadium region had collectively offended them in another life.
At the post-match press conference, the tackling was described as 'robust'.
Eli Walker and Ashley Beck might have come up with a different word to describe hits on them. 'Illegal' would have done justice to the no-arms shot on Walker, while Beck appeared to cop a forearm smash.
There was also a thunderous wipe-out from behind that must have rattled all 206 bones in Ben John's body.
Credit the former Aberavon centre for rising from the floor and getting on with the game. But, presumably, he didn't leap out of bed yesterday morning and do a cartwheel en route to the bathroom while singing I Feel Good by James Brown.
Unsurprisingly, the Ospreys' new forwards coach from New Zealand, Chris Gibbes, wasn't moaning — Kiwis tend not to do much of that over rough-and-tumble play.
Instead, the ex-Waikato man preferred to salute the Warriors' physicality.
"What Worcester brought is going to stand us in great stead," he said.
"They were huge men and very physical.
"That is the sort of stuff we want for early pre-season. We're pretty happy with that."
The Ospreys will not have been happy with their defence in the early stages, however, with Worcester posting two tries in the opening eight minutes — the first after tissue-paper tackling that would have left head coach Steve Tandy seething.
In their defence, the side on the pitch was young, missing the five forwards who toured with the Lions this summer, plus Ryan Jones, Andrew Bishop and Hanno Dirksen.
But Tandy doesn't usually buy excuses for slipshod tackling.
Commitment is at the heart of his rugby philosophy and nothing illustrates commitment more than fierce, unyielding defence.
Understandably, there was a lack of fluency about much of the Ospreys' play, though Tito Tebaldi worked hard, Walker had his moments and Richard Fussell flickered brightly.
Up front, the biggest plus was the way the Ospreys repeatedly executed impressive driving mauls.
James King had a stand-out game at the heart of the pack, proving a reliable line-out option and immensely hard-working around the field, while Joe Bearman and Dan Baker led the charges into the Worcester defence, and there were impressive cameos from youngster Rhodri Hughes and oldster Ian Gough.
Not that Gibbes was particularly up for lauding individuals. "I am not a man who singles people out," he said.
"The game is a team game.
"As a forwards coach, I was pretty happy with the effort put in around the scrum.
"We are still learning these new rules. I was pretty happy with the way we came out in the second half and applied the plan better as a unit.
"There were a couple of things I was happy with around the line-out drive, though there are things we still have to get right. But I'm not going to single people out."
When a reporter suggested King had played particularly well, however, Gibbes agreed, conceding: "He had a great game."
For sure, there is no harm in a deserved pat on the back now and again.
King did look a cut above and is a player who could achieve much in the season ahead, for the Ospreys and maybe even with Wales.
Ultimately, it was a good day for the region.
Kahn Fotuali'i was always going to be a tough act to follow but Tebaldi showed promise and will have more opportunities to shine when the Ospreys forwards are up to full strength.
The region's young backline in the final stages, featuring four players who are 21 or under in Ross Jones, Matthew Jenkins, Eli Walker and Matthew Morgan, plus the 22-year-old Tom Grabham, showed superb composure to craft a last-minute try that secured victory.
Morgan and Jonathan Spratt combined smartly to send Jones in at the flag.
For the Warriors, skipper Jonathan Thomas was inspirational on his return to the Liberty, piling into tackles and working tirelessly.
But the visitors couldn't secure the result that would have crowned an unforgettable day.
With hindsight, perhaps merely arriving in Swansea to play, after the ordeal of the burning bus, was an astonishing triumph in itself.