The Ospreys had to settle for a losing bonus point on a horrible night at Ravenhill as Ulster held on to secure a 10-7 win in the Belfast wind and rain.
They led 7-3 at the break thanks to an early Sam Lewis try, converted by Sam Davies, but Ulster edged ahead shortly after the restart, Darren Cave touching down, then with the wind at their backs managed to keep their line intact despite late Ospreys pressure.
With the hosts boasting a squad featuring world class overseas talent, the youthful Ospreys put on a display full of character and commitment, but will feel that maybe, just maybe, they could have sneaked a win at the death.
The Ospreys showed positive intent from the start, running the ball back at Ulster after Ricky Andrew attempted to kick it straight back to them after the hosts received the kick-off.
Working their way upfield, the forwards took turns to make the hard yards, drawing in defenders to create space on the outside, eventually allowing Matthew Morgan to open his legs wide on the left. He beat the first defender, but was bundled into touch by Craig Gilroy just a couple of metres out.
Having made a hash of their own throw close to the line, Ulster were forced to defend furiously in the following exchanges as the Ospreys maintained their bright start, and the visitors were rewarded with the first score of the night in the 10th minute, a try from openside Lewis.
It came from a free-kick, awarded to the Ospreys at a scrum, allowing Joe Bearman to tap and go quickly, putting Ulster on the back foot. Morgan’s quick feet took him close, but he was unable to place the ball over the line. It was recycled quickly, and good hands from Jonathan Spratt and Tyler Ardron resulted in a simple walk over on the right for Lewis. Davies added the extras.
Ulster looked to hit back immediately, a penalty against Lewis on the floor just a minute later allowing the hosts to move up to the corner. Their line out drive was halted by the Ospreys, Perry Parker doing good defensive work, before Ruan Pienaar was held up on the line.
From the resulting scrum, the hosts looked to have worked an opening on the right, Jared Payne drawing in Jeff Hassler before feeding Mike Allen close to the touchline. It looked a certain score, despite Ashley Beck’s defensive efforts, but after referee Nigel Owens referred the decision to the TMO, replays clearly showed the Ulster win losing control of the ball as he attempted to ground it and knocking on.
Having survived that scare, the Ospreys again took control of territory and possession, but a clearing kick from deep inside his own 22 from Allen eventually led to an Ulster penalty after a great chase from Pienaar, Lewis pinged for sealing off to protect the ball on the floor. The South African slotted over the kick to get the scoreboard moving on Ulster’s side.
Lifted by that score, Ulster were soon back on the attack, Pienaar’s box-kick troubling the Ospreys defence, allowing the hosts to regain possession, and eventually winning the penalty for hands in the ruck. With the worsening wind and rain in their faces, Ulster opted to go for the line out, but aggressive defence saw Beck dislodging the ball in a big tackle on Rob Herring, and Morgan was able to clear.
As the clock moved passed the half hour mark, good work at the back of an under pressure scrum from the impressive Bearman allowed the Ospreys to launch an attack from their own 22, Morgan jinking his way through the slightest of gaps before accelerating forward and feeding Jeff Hassler on the right. He lost the ball in the tackle as three defenders came across to cover, but Owens again went to the TMO who confirmed a ‘no-arm’ tackle from Allen, awarding the penalty to the Ospreys.
It was a decision the vocal home crowd were clearly unhappy about, but jeers turned to cheers when Davies’ penalty attempt was off target, leaving the score at 3-7 with eight minutes left in the first half.
The conditions were beginning to have a growing influence on the contest as the interval approached, both teams surrendering possession cheaply, but the hosts had a chance to have the final say of the half when awarded a penalty at the scrum with time up, but Pienaar’s kick from 35m out was off target.
HALF-TIME: ULSTER 3 OSPREYS 7
With the wind now at their backs, Ulster came out fired up as you’d expect, and it took them just a fraction over three minutes to snatch the lead from the Ospreys.
It came following a rare misjudgement from Davies, who carried the ball back into the 22 as he collected the high ball, so when his long clearing kick went straight into touch play was moved back into Ospreys territory.
That allowed Ulster to lay siege on the Ospreys line, and as it was worked through hands Cave spotted a gap in the defensive line and glided through between Duncan Jones and Morgan to score. Piennar’s conversion meant the hosts led by three points.
Ulster thought they’d grabbed their second try of the night in the 52nd minute through replacement Iain Henderson, who was driven over the Ospreys line from close range by his forwards after Tito Tebaldi, on for Habberfield, had his clearing kick charged down.
Nigel Owens looked to have awarded the score only to have second thoughts, referring it upstairs to the TMO who ruled that a defending player had stolen the ball off Henderson before he could ground it.
It was one-way traffic now as Ulster looked to use the wind to their benefit, putting the ball behind the Ospreys at every opportunity but well organised defence was ensuring that attacking opportunities were minimal as the game moved into the final quarter.
A great counter-attack from Hassler saw him running from his own half up to the Ulster 22 where he was finally halted by the Ulster defence. It was recycled quickly and moved across the field, where the other Canadian, Ardron, took possession and tried to barge his way over, ignoring two players on his outside, only to spill the ball in the tackle.
Time was ticking away, but buoyed by that break, the Ospreys regained momentum moving into the final 10 minutes. A powerful run from Jonathan Spratt again gave the Ospreys some go forward, Aisea Natoga then having two goes at reaching the line only to be held up in the tackle by the Ulster defence with Henderson at the heart of the good work.
It was going to the wire, with just three points separating the teams with just five minutes remaining, but the Ospreys would have been disappointed not to snatch the lead when Eli Walker, back in a black shirt after three months sidelines with injury, sliced open the defence minutes after taking the field.
Unfortunately, the winger opted to step back infield instead of feeding Natoga on his outside who would have been favourite to win the race to the line. Ulster were able to regroup and clear, and unfortunately for the Ospreys that was to be Walker’s only involvement as he limped out of the action. With all the backs on the bench already used, back rower Morgan Allen was forced into action.
The visitors piled on the pressure as the clock went red, showing discipline and patience to retain possession,working their way upfield up to the Ulster 10m line, only for Tebaldi to opt for a box kick when keeping the ball alive would have been the preferred option, Ulster securing the high ball before putting the ball out much to the relief of the home support.