Welsh rugby regions in good nick, or in need of a few plasters?
MOVEMBER is almost here — a time when rugby players across the regions tend to study themselves more closely in their mirrors, to check how that newly acquired layer of facial hair is progressing.
It is a good time, too, for their regional teams to scrutinise themselves after waving goodbye to sundry internationals for the autumn Tests. For sure, some will find they are sporting the rugby equivalent of more facial plasters than others.
On the surface, the Ospreys are in as good nick as anyone.
But you would never as guessed as much if you were a casual viewer just tuning in to Scrum V on Sunday.
In a withering analysis, Gwyn Jones as good as accused Steve Tandy's side of being flat-track bullies, of being able to bash the weak but unable to stand up to the strong.
Here is the former Wales captain's take: "The Ospreys are a power team who see their strengths as being in their forwards and why not?
"Look at the stars they have in their pack, who have delivered so much on the international stage.
"Yet the Ospreys cannot find a coherent pattern of play which succeeds at the highest level.
"I don't mean to be disrespectful to the Dragons, but that Ospreys side has more Lions in it than the Dragons have international rugby players. They should be able to beat them by five match points at home, which they did in the last ten minutes.
"But if you look at a typical passage of play the Ospreys put together it's not particularly inspiring.
"It's good enough to beat the Dragons at home and get five points, but when they play against good sides, against Heineken Cup sides - they came away with two losses recently and a defeat in a Pro12 game against Ulster.
"They haven't got out of their Heineken Cup group, if they don't get out this year, for four consecutive seasons. With that amount of talent in their team, that's just not acceptable."
Pretty good job they are at the top of the league, then, level on points with Munster, otherwise there could really have been some criticism.
But there was more, with Jones warming to his theme that the Ospreys play unimaginative one-up rugby based on power and not much craft, preferring to truck the ball up instead of passing it and creating space.
"They need to open their game up," he said.
"The Ospreys have to say: 'If are going to win big matches in the Heineken Cup, we need to get the ball into wide positions and into space to use our most attacking players, Tipuric, Beck, Walker'."
Is the analysis fair?
To a point.
The Ospreys have scored the most points in the league, averaging 32 a game. They have crossed for the most tries and banked the most try bonus points, and 14 of their 20 touchdowns have come from backs.
So they are obviously doing plenty right at the Liberty.
Their frustrations in Europe over the past three years have had something to do with the horror groups they keep getting drawn in as a result of their under-achievement in seasons past.
Everyone wants to see attractive rugby, with pretty patterns being weaved among the backs.
But it is worth remembering this is a £3.5 million squad at the Liberty, while some of their rivals in Europe have close on treble that budget.
That isn't to dismiss Jones's thesis out of hand.
Clearly the Ospreys did hit a wall in the Heineken Cup.
It's just whether that was down to the way they play or the make-up of their squad in such austere times.
Whatever, Tandy is unlikely to be fretting too much about their league performances so far.
He will know as well as anyone that no title or play-off place or European cup qualification spot is ever won before November, but such things can be lost.
A poor start can leave a side playing catch-up all season, as happened to the Ospreys in 2012-13.
Certainly, every point is likely to count for all concerned this term, with change in the air for the structure of club and regional rugby and talk of just six or seven Pro12 teams playing in a top-tier European competition next season, possibly with each of the four competing countries being guaranteed one entrant.
The Dragons have traditionally been the fall guys. But come this summer it would be no surprise if two or even three Welsh sides missed out on a place at European rugby's rearranged top table.
The Scarlets have improving to do, having been inconsistent in the opening two months of the league campaign.
Want to sample a serious mood swing? Then head for Parc y Scarlets.
Just when there is a hint that things might be going right, along comes the next game to puncture the bubble of optimism. The form breakdown in the league says it all: LWLWLD.
The schizophrenic nature of his side will not please Simon Easterby one jot.
League rugby is all about consistency, the ability to grind out results, something the Scarlets did well for much of last term. But they have found it hard to get into their stride this term, notwithstanding bright performances from Liam Williams, Jordan Williams and Scott Williams.
The Dragons are actually above the West Walians in the table but were given a reality check at the Ospreys last Friday night. They struggle on the road and have an under-powered scrum.
Nonetheless, they are not hit too hard by representative calls and so could yet surprise themselves.
As for the Blues, they need to get a shift on. They have conceded more points than any side in the league bar Zebre and Edinburgh and continue to play patchily. Their game display against Toulon in the Heineken Cup points to their capability, but the challenge is to hit that level regularly.
Wales, too, will want improved performances this autumn compared with last year.
South Africa yesterday named a squad containing Bakkies Botha and Jaque Fourie for the first time since the 2011 World Cup, while JP Pietersen is back in the squad for the first time in 2013.
The squad bristles with power and strength and are bound to offer Wales the sternest of challenges on November 9.
Stubbly or clean-shaven, the Springboks will prove one mean bunch.
They always are.