Preview: Ospreys v Gunners
It's been a long time since the Gunners played a match, so to get you in the mood we thought we'd take a look at the Ospreys, the Gunners' next opponents, and how this fixture at Liberty Stadium might affect our title chances.
The champions' crown has seemingly slipped a bit. A quick glance at the table suggests the Gunners have a real chance of snatching vital away points from this one, with the Ospreys trailing the Gunners by 16 points and lying a lowly 9th in the table. Yet that does not tell the whole story. For a start the Ospreys have a game in hand, thanks to the fixture pile-up all the Welsh clubs are suffering as a result of their participation in the Powergen Cup. They are also due to gain a further four points for their second "Free weekend", points that the Gunners have already banked. Suddenly that gap doesn't look quite so big.
Then there is form. The Ospreys have had an up-and-down season. The undoubted highlight was victory at home against Stade Francais in the Heineken Cup, with other notable victories including home wins against Montferrand and Leinster and an upset victory over Ulster at Ravenhill. Their bitterest defeat thus far must surely be the two-point loss at home at the hands of Leicester. And yet..... they lost to The Borders at Netherdale, won the return fixture in February by just four points, have been absolutely hammered both home and away by Cardiff of all people and scraped past Connacht at home by a single point.
So could the defending champions yet make a late run for the title? Possibly, but in all probability they will fall short. Whilst not mathematically out of it yet, it is unlikely they will amass enough points, particularly given their inability to collect bonus points (just one all season). Nevertheless, the Ospreys could still be a major factor in deciding who wins this season, since they are now the only other team that all the title contenders must face.
First up, of course, are our own Gunners. The Ospreys home record this season is Won 6 - Lost 3. In the Celtic League however they stand at 4-1, which certainly looks more respectable. Yet their four home wins (against Leinster, Dragons, Connacht and Borders) are by a combined margin of just +13 points, and that single defeat is the 28-9 drubbing they received at the hands of Cardiff. The Gunners record on the road this season is the mirror image of the Ospreys' home record: Won 3 - Lost 6. However, the Gunners' away record in this year's Celtic League fixtures is a very respectable 3-3, with two of those wins coming against Welsh opposition in the shape of Llanelli and Cardiff, whilst the other was victory over Leinster.
Suddenly, things begin to look more hopeful for the Gunners. But this year's Ospreys team has been marked by their ability to turn it on for the big games, as evidenced by some of their results in the Heineken Cup, whilst they have failed to show-up for games against "lesser" opposition; in some ways they appear more French than Welsh. In other words, this game may be too close to call, and could depend on which Ospreys team turns up on the day.
Meanwhile, of the remaining teams currently occupying the top five places in the league, only Leinster do not have to go to Liberty Stadium. Instead they will face the Ospreys at home at the end of April, looking to avenge that defeat from the opening weekend of the campaign. Llanelli play the Ospreys twice in a pair of fixtures that could well determine which of these two teams ends up with bragging rights in Wales. Munster go to Liberty Stadium at the beginning of May, whilst Ulster's visit to the Ospreys is their last, and possibly most vital, game of the season.
Given all this, how the contenders perform against the Ospreys (and vice-versa) could play a vital role in determining which team is crowned champions at the end of the season. The Ospreys may not end the season as kings, but they could yet be the kingmakers.