A monumental defensive effort from the Ospreys proved in vain, Jacob Stockdale’s last minute try meaning they left Kingspan Stadium in Belfast without even a losing bonus point.
It had been an incredible backs to the wall show of resilience from the visitors, trailing 3-0 from only the 7th minute and with the possession, territory, tackle count and just about every other statistic overwhelmingly favouring Ulster, it looked as though the Ospreys had done enough to secure at least a point as they launched a rare attack in the 80th minute, only for the ball to go to ground, allowing Stockdale to race in from halfway.
Although the result means that a Cardiff Blues win over Southern Kings on Saturday will put the last automatic Champions Cup qualification spot out of the Ospreys reach, Connacht’s defeat to Glasgow after losing at the Liberty Stadium last weekend means that a European play-off spot is guaranteed.
As it stands, that would see these two sides clash once again, at the same venue, on the weekend of 18/19/20 May.
Early pressure from the hosts was rewarded with the opening points of the night, John Cooney with a simple penalty from right in front of the posts seven minutes in.
Ulster were dominating, without looking like finding a way through solid Ospreys defence, until they managed to create some room for Stockdale out on the left wing.
The Ireland man danced his way passed the first tackle and looked set for the line, only for an incredible last gasp tackle by Bradley Davies, the lock doing exceptionally well to hang on to, and then haul down, Stockdale just a metre out.
The Ospreys eventually won turnover ball to clear their line but there was no respite as the hosts came back at them, controlling territory and possession.
Despite that, it was the Ospreys who should have registered on the scoreboard next on 21 minutes.
Dan Biggar went for the posts with what looked a routine penalty kick after a scrappy period of play had been ended by Dan Evans putting boot to bouncing ball and hacking upfield, Hanno Dirksen’s kick chase winning the penalty.
However, the Ospreys 10 screwed his kick across the posts and wide to the right.
In the middle of all that, the Ospreys lost Scott Otten to a HIA, replaced by Ifan Phillips.
As the clock ticked towards half an hour the pattern of the contest remained the same, Ulster pressing, Ospreys defending valiantly.
The scoreboard remained static at 3-0 to the home team, Ulster failing to turn their dominance into clear opportunities, summed up by a frustrated, aimless drop goal attempt by Johnny McPhillips at the end of one prolonged attack.
It seemed as if Ulster had fallen victim to the classic sucker punch when the Ospreys appeared to have got the first try of night. Bradley Davies secured loose ball on his 10m line to set off a swift counter attack that saw Kieron Fonotia break clear with a classic show and go on Ulster 10m’s line before haring over to ground between the posts.
However, the TMO brought an alleged Alun Wyn Jones neck roll to the referee’s attention and the try was ruled out, play taken back deep into the Ospreys half.
From the resulting setpiece, Ulster went close, Matthew Rea trying to power his way through, stopped just short, before Charles Piutau tried to burrow over from close range only to be penalised for not releasing the ball as he waited for support to arrive.
The remaining minutes of the first period followed the same pattern of the half in general, Ulster pressing and probing, but the score was unchanged as the teams headed down the tunnel at the break.
ULSTER 3-0 OSPREYS
The Ospreys felt they should have had a penalty early in the second half after Biggar was taken out from behind at a ruck in his own 22 but on this occasion there was no TMO referral.
Then the visitors were able to put together a rare moment of pressure, a swift counter seeing Adam Beard freeing Jeff Hassler, the Canadian breaking the first tackle then looking to offload to Tom Habberfield, who knocked on as he looked to gather 15m out with open space ahead of him.
Dirksen then did well dealing with Piutau’s bouncing ball under pressure from Louis Ludik’s chase, albeit at the expense of a scrum five.
Ulster kept up the pressure at the setpiece, moving it wide where Piutau tried to offload round the back to Ludik for what would have been a certain score but the pass went straight into touch.
It was now incessant pressure from the home team and they thought they’d done enough with their rolling maul on the opposite side, rumbling towards the line but the defence held firm, holding them up and winning the scrum.
However, the Ospreys made a hash of their exit, Evans caught in possession behind his own line, handing advantage back to Ulster. As the hosts pounded the line and a try looked the only outcome, Hassler was pinged for killing the ball and shown a yellow card, trudging to the side with 58 minutes on the clock and the deficit still, incredibly, just the three points.
Ulster opted for the scrum, the Ospreys held firm and, after forcing Ulster’s backs 10m backwards with aggressive defence, they were awarded the penalty, Cooney pinged on the ground.
Still Ulster kept coming, wave after wave of pressure, still Ospreys kept frustrating them.
Then, with Hassler ready to return to the action, Ulster thought they had finally broken the Ospreys resistance, Luke Marshall kicking behind the defence into acres of space, Nick Timoney seemingly winning the race to ground the ball.
However, the ball spun loose as he looked to get it down, and after much viewing of the replays, the decision was that great work from Watkin had forced the knock-on, the visitors able to clear from the resulting scrum.
Unbelievably, the game had reached the 80th minute with just a single penalty kick on the scoreboard and a penalty allowed the Ospreys to finally look to make inroads and even steal the unlikeliest of victories.
However, Biggar’s pass to his right went to ground and Stockdale gratefully scooped up the loose ball just inside his own half and raced over to score the only try of the game, breaking Ospreys hearts.
The final action of the game saw the conversion missed, the Ospreys players gutted to miss out on any rewards from the game.