Ospreys on brink of Heineken Cup exit after defeat to Northampton
THE good news for the Ospreys is that no side is officially counted out in the Heineken Cup until the December batch of matches at the earliest.
The bad news? Well, Steve Tandy hit the nail squarely on the head when he said that no team had ever qualified for the quarter-finals after losing their first two games.
Put bluntly, the Ospreys' race looks all but run in the competition for this term.
If this were a silent movie, they'd be the bloke tied to the tracks while the train hurtles towards them. They'd be the chap entombed in the water tank that is filling up dramatically with each passing second.
Two games played and without a point to show for their efforts in a pool that was expected to be brutally tight. If the former Pro12 champions come back from this, Lazarus will doubtless join their fan club.
It certainly wasn't lack of effort that did for them yesterday.
Several players gave everything for the cause and then some more. Dan Biggar, for instance, couldn't have tried harder. He didn't just supply all the Ospreys' points, he also tackled himself to a standstill and relentlessly put his hand up for ball carrying.
Alun Wyn Jones did all he could to inspire his side; Justin Tipuric didn't stop foraging and chasing; Ryan Bevington had a storming game at loose-head prop, forcing a series of penalties out of the opposition.
Yet the Ospreys still lost.
They were outmuscled at key points and lacked the clinical edge of their Aviva Premiership hosts. They also started badly and were careless when they needed to be precise.
You felt for Jones, a player who desperately wants to achieve success on the big stage with his home region.
But arguably the damage was done with the defeat by Leinster in Swansea eight days earlier. After that, Pool 1 was always going to be an immense challenge for the Welsh region.
It's an odd one, however.
They usually head into Europe with momentum, but they have never really caught fire in the Heineken Cup and the combustion process has once again proved elusive. Why? That is the question all connected with the Ospreys need to consider.
Clearly, they don't have the depth of some of the big hitters in this tournament.
But they also struggle to play to potential for 80 minutes.
They were poor in the first half at Franklin's Gardens, denied possession and wasteful in taking chances.
They coughed up 88 per cent of their possession in the first half hour, a dreadful stat that made it seem as if they had been playing the All Blacks.
After the break it was different. Tandy's side moved up the gears and their key forwards started making inroads into the home cover.
But, again, the Welsh side couldn't see the job through.
Maybe it's a big ask for a side with such a low salary cap to do anything in the Heineken Cup.
There again, the Scarlets won at Harlequins last week.
And Edinburgh defeated Munster.
It is all about bringing your A game to the table and imposing it on others for entire games. Over the years, the Ospreys have struggled to consistently do that in Europe.
Tandy had spelled out at the pre-match press conference exactly what his players needed to do in this second pool game: tackle everything that moved, play in the right areas, accept points as a thirsty man would guzzle water in a desert, stand up to Northampton at forward and rediscover their clinical streak.
Do all that, the thinking was, and the Ospreys might just have a chance.
But the early signs weren't promising, with Northampton racing into a 10-0 lead within 12 minutes.
Their first points arrived almost before some people had settled in their seats.
Tom Habberfield collected the ball and Courtney Lawes from the first whistle, with the England lock hurtling into the young scrum-half from the kick-off. That set the tone for an immense performance from Lawes.
The Ospreys fell offside as the ball was spread right, allowing Stephen Myler to land a straightforward penalty.
Skipper Jones was evidently still seething after his side's display against Leinster the previous weekend, saying on the eve of this game: "It's easy to put a finger on what went wrong. We were crap. The sadistic side of me says that sometimes it's better to lose than be the shower of shxxx we were last weekend and capitulate."
The assumption has to be that Jones wouldn't have been pleased at the way the Ospreys conceded the first try yesterday, then.
It was simplicity itself.
Northampton managed to wheel a short-range scrum, effectively taking Ryan Jones out of the game and creating the space for Samu Manoa to stroll over unopposed for a ridiculously easy try.
The Ospreys were struggling to get into the match, missing tackles and turning over ball too easily.
But Bevington was applying pressure at the scrum, winning a couple of penalties, and helping the Ospreys enjoy a measure of go-forward.
Biggar got the scoreboard ticking over for the visitors with two well-struck shots at goal, the second from 50 metres, but it wasn't long before the Saints reasserted themselves.
The score owed much to the visitors' physicality, evident when Tom Wood blasted Tipuric out of a ruck with such force it appeared the Lions flanker had been tasered.
Centres Luther Burrell and George Pisi then made huge dents in the Ospreys defence before the ball was spread left for lock Christian Day to gallop over.
By contrast, the Ospreys couldn't make the best of the half-chances that came their way.
Jeff Hassler and Ashley Beck chose to kick when Northampton appeared threatened, the cover getting across on both occasions, and then the Ospreys failed to profit from a scrum near the home 22, a mix-up at the back resulting in a Northampton penalty.
The visitors came out for the second half showing more fight with Jones leading the way.
The lock did superbly to turn a Northampton player in the tackle and then put in a couple of powerful charges, backed by drives from Hibbard and a run from Hassler.
The ball eventually reached Biggar and the Wales international twisted over with several Northampton players doing all they could to try to stop him. The video referee was needed to approve the score, but approve it he did: the conversion cut the deficit to just four points.
For a few minutes, the Ospreys actually looked like they could go on and claim the game.
But momentum shifted again after Habberfield passed to a Northampton player in the home 22, allowing the Saints to motor upfield to claim their third try, this time from Ben Foden.
They went in search of a bonus point, but the Ospreys had enough about them to hold out.
In the consolation stakes, that was at least something.
But Europe has once again proved beyond the Ospreys, and no-one at the region can be happy with that.