In-form Hibbard is tipped for international recall
THE Ospreys believe Wales will wipe the slate clean by picking Richard Hibbard for the autumn series — because form matters and the "sensational" former Swansea star is playing better than any other hooker in Welsh rugby.
Hibbard gave away the fateful two penalties that Australia kicked to complete a series-clinching win over Rob Howley's national team in Melbourne in the summer.
He was then dropped for the final Test amid suggestions that he was shunned by some coaches and even some of his team-mates.
But if a mark of a player is how he responds to adversity, Hibbard has shown himself to be made of the right stuff by starting the season in career-best form.
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That is what happens when a sportsman with character is backed into a corner. He crashes his way out.
Last week against Munster, every time Hibbard put in a tackle the impact was shattering. Doug Howlett was smashed back yards at one point. He could have been excused for feeling he had been Tasered.
There was also the trademark forceful carrying, while Hibbard found his target every time in the line-out: 12 accurate throws out of 12.
And for proving himself irrepressible, he deserves another chance on the Test scene, believes Ospreys forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys.
"I'm sure Wales will not hold anything against him," said Humphreys.
"We're in a results business and you pick the best players available to you.
"Right now, Hibs is the best player out there. Selection is all about form.
"Wales will want to win all the autumn internationals and if Hibs provides them with the best opportunity to do that they will pick him."
As a former Wales captain who played hooker for his country 35 times, Humphreys doesn't speak without authority. He has seen Hibbard develop as a player, seen the effort he has put in after his disappointment in Australia.
"He's been sensational," said Humphreys.
"Not only is he is great nick after really looking after himself over the past couple of months, he's also playing the best rugby I have seen him play since I arrived at the Ospreys seven years ago.
"He has been massive for us in our last two games."
Hibbard will be on the bench against Zebre in Parma this evening, Scott Baldwin coming in for his first start of the season.
The Ospreys field a powerful line-up, having already lost once in Italy this season when they fell 12-6 on the opening night of the campaign.
They name ten internationals, including Adam Jones and Ryan Jones, and while Justin Tipuric is ruled out by a hip problem, the selection underlines the region's determination not to trip up this time.
"We want to be clinical out there," said Humphreys.
"Treviso and Aironi have played particularly well against us in Italy in the past, so we know the score.
"Zebre may be at the bottom of the table but where they sit doesn't tell the whole story. They have a big pack of forwards and they played well against Glasgow last time out.
"It is up to us to be clinical, controlled and make sure they don't get off to a good start. We have momentum and we want to maintain it."
At the region's training ground this week, several players took turns to practise their goal-kicking, some more seriously than others. Alun Wyn Jones, Kahn Fotuali'i and Ben John were among those who took aim, but they would have been just as well served studying Dan Biggar and taking tips from a genuine master of his craft.
Kicks from Biggar flew through the posts from all ranges and angles, even though the surface was sodden. Had any Zebre spies been watching, they would have hurried back home to impress upon the club's players the importance of not giving away penalties this evening.
A confidence player, the former Swansea man is on top of his game and, like Hibbard, mounting a strong case for inclusion in Wales's squad for the autumn Tests.
"He's massively important to the Ospreys," said Humphreys.
"His form over the past two games has been exceptional. He played at the Scarlets, where he isn't the most liked guy, which is fine, but the way he deals with stuff like that on a regular basis you forget he's only 22 years of age.
"He's still young yet he has a lot of experience behind him and he's playing as well as he has ever played. He's great for us."
Humphreys was pleased with the way the Ospreys used their driving maul to such telling effect against Munster last week.
They have been working on it since the summer and the benefits were there for all to see in Swansea six days ago, with the Irish province repeatedly forced to back-pedal.
If the exercise could be compared to a weapons test, the verdict would have to be a positive one. Doubtless, more will be seen of it in the weeks and months ahead.
"We haven't put a lot of emphasis on having a driving maul in the past, but it's something we worked on in pre-season to add to our armoury," said Humphreys.
"It's like anything: the more you work at it, the better you'll get.
"We don't want to become a team where this one facet of our play overtakes everything, but it's something we need to have at our disposal because it allows us to mix up our game.
"It was great to see some rewards come from it against Munster. We have to work on it. We want it to go hand in hand with our scrum because the same principles apply."