Ospreys need to get the home fires burning once again
NOT so long ago there was more chance of Bakkies Botha landing a guest presenter's slot on Blue Peter than there was of the Ospreys losing three games in a row at home.
The Liberty Stadium was a fortress; visiting sides travelled there in expectation of defeat.
When Saracens took the region's six-year unbeaten ground record in Europe last term, the story made a ripple as far afield as Bangkok, with the English language newspaper there reporting how the Ospreys had finally been beaten in Swansea.
In Sean Holley's press conference after the game, the sense of dejection was almost palpable.
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Track back further and the Ospreys completed an entire season without losing front of their fans, repulsing the attempts of Leinster, Munster, the Scarlets, the Blues, Gloucester, Harlequins, Sale, Bristol, Stade Francais and the touring Australians, among others, to storm the barricades.
But here we are, four games into the new campaign and the Pro12 champions have already suffered two defeats from as many matches at the Liberty.
What used to be a strength, their ability to deliver unfailingly at home, has somehow deserted them.
The advantage gained from playing at home is as much psychological as anything else.
Paul Ackford tells a great story about how Clive Woodward used to give his England team an edge, by making sure home players passed through a throng of well-wishers as they arrived at Twickenham, eventually making their way into a dazzlingly appointed dressing room, with each player having his own partitioned, named cubicle. Plaques on the walls marked great England wins.
England's opponents, by contrast, got off the bus in the West Car park, made their way through crowds who might have been less than welcoming, before heading down a corridor and past a scruffy old mop and bucket which Woodward had placed by the side of the away team's changing room door.
As Ackford says: "Dwell on that for a moment. You're in the zone, tuned into something motivational on your MP3 player, about to prepare for an elite confrontation, only to be greeted by objects which wouldn't look out of place in a municipal park. Brilliant."
Some argue that ground advantage isn't what it is cracked up to be, that any game involves 15 against 15 on a patch of grass and everything else is froth.
But such a view ignores how much a home crowd can galvanise those for whom they are cheering. It ignores how demoralising hostility can be for away players. It fails to take into account how much a referee can be swayed by a vociferous, one-sided narrative from the stands.
Whatever, the Ospreys need to get it right at the third time of asking in Swansea tomorrow evening.
They should go into their game with Munster with confidence topped up after beating the Scarlets in Llanelli last week.
The forwards returned to something like their best in Llanelli, dominating the hosts in the scrums and imposing themselves on the contact area, key players like Richard Hibbard to the fore, the hooker relishing the physical nature of the contest.
The line-out will still be an area of concern for Jonathan Humphreys.
But when Hibbard contributes as much around the field and in the tight as he did at Parc y Scarlets it is hard to think of a better hooker in Wales.
The Ospreys will also look to Ryan Jones for another forceful effort after his successful comeback in Llanelli, with the former Wales captain and Justin Tipuric required to lead the way in the all-important breakdown area.
Munster are trying to expand their game under Rob Penney, though no-one should expect the Barbarians circa 1973 this evening, with the Irish province retaining the capacity to front up and take a direct route if required.
But the Ospreys' pack will be up for the fight. "I thought they were outstanding last week," said scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i, who had a closer view than anyone of how Alun Wyn Jones's eight shaped up in Llanelli.
"They weren't just good with possession but with things like cleaning out and their workrate around the ruck area.
"It isn't all about catching the ball and scoring tries. Little things that people don't take much notice of are also important. As a scrum-half, you are in the mix and you see all the tight forwards working their backsides off to get around a corner to clean a player out.
"That produces good ball for a scrum-half to get the ball out to the backs.
"They did that superbly for me in Llanelli. It was great to play behind them."
Fotuali'i himself excelled against the Scarlets, making good decisions and relishing the tough exchanges, while Dan Biggar had his best game of the season as he ran play with authority.
"Dan had a lovely game," said Fotuali'i.
"He has the ability to put the ball into the corners and it makes it a lot easier for our forwards.
"I thought he was awesome against the Scarlets. He is a help to me at scrum-half, chatting a lot. I prefer it if a No. 10 talks throughout the game. As a scrum-half, you are then under no doubt whether the backs want the ball or whether you need to do something else with it. Dan is a good organiser."
Fotuali'i continued: "We are expecting a good test tomorrow.
"I haven't been coached by Rob Penney but I know him quite well and he'll be trying to get them playing with an expansive style.
"That said, they have a pack and a couple of backs to allow them to mix it up and be more direct.
"If it's a nice night, my guess is that under Rob they'll probably look to use the ball.
"It's going to be interesting and the boys will be fired up after last week's win."
Fotuali'i is out of contract at the end of the season. "I haven't thought too much about that," he said.
"I'm just focusing on the here and now and helping the team as much as possible.
"We haven't had the best of starts to the season. I'll start thinking about things like that later down the track.
"I'd be happy if something did arise.
"I guess it's up to me in a way, to try to perform and help out as much as possible."
On last week's evidence the Ospreys would be hard-pushed to find a better-quality No. 9 than the Samoan World Cup star.
But, as he says, such thoughts can be put on hold. The immediate issue is to rediscover how to win in Swansea.
It is overdue for the home fires to start burning again.