A John Cooney penalty, the final kick of the game, denied the Ospreys even a losing bonus point at Morganstone Brewery Field on Friday night.
The first half was scoreless as Ulster enjoyed the upper hand but the Ospreys defence was unbreakable, but the second period saw man of the match, Stuart McCloskey, cap an impressive individual showing with the game’s only try, before Cooney’s three pointer meant the Ospreys ended the game empty handed.
The Ospreys, minus their entire Wales international contingent, lost starting scrum half Tom Habberfield through illness prior to kick-off, Matthew Aubrey starting and Reuben Morgan-Williams coming onto the bench.
For their part, Ulster were boosted by the return of Iain Henderson, John Cooney and Jordi Murphy from Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad.
In a first half low on opportunities, Ulster had the opportunity to get the first points of the night 14 minutes in from a penalty out for not releasing, but Cooney pushed it wide.
The Ulster scrum half thought he’d have another go a minute later, temporary blood replacement Keelan Giles penalised at a ruck 30m out. However, the referee’s attention was drawn to a neck roll on Sam Cross moments earlier on halfway and the decision was reversed.
It was never less than compelling but 25 minutes in it remained scoreless, defences on top as the contest played out mainly between the two 22s.
On 30 minutes it looked as though Ulster had managed to fashion the first score of the night after a spell of pressure, building momentum through the phases. Louis Ludik punched a hole in the defence in midfield before it was moved wide to the right where a try looked certain only for Angus Kernohan to lose the ball forward as he looked to ground it.
With Ulster by now enjoying the greater territory and possession the penalty count was inevitably beginning to creep up against the Ospreys, but still the defence held firm.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 0-0 ULSTER
The Ospreys were back on the defensive from the restart and Dan Evans had to be alert to snuff out the danger, collecting Peter Nelson’s grubber bravely at the feet of the chasing Kernohan just metres from his line.
The deadlock was eventually broken seven minutes into the second half and it was a scrappy score to round off a scrappy period of play. First Ulster, then the Ospreys, lost possession in midfield cheaply, but the visitors countered up the left at speed, McCloskey feeding Kernohan who was stopped just short. The ball was recycled but went to ground and the big centre fell on the loose ball to score in the corner.
The angle proved just too much for Cooney, his valiant conversion attempt striking the far post.
Ulster continued to press as the hour approached, resolute defence keeping the line intact and there was a moment when it looked as though Cory Allen was going to race the length of the field after picking off a loose pass on his own line, only for play to be taken back for an Ulster penalty across the field for collapsing the maul.
This time the Ospreys won turnover ball at the resultant maul, and were awarded a penalty at the scrum that followed, allowing them to clear the danger, advancing to halfway.
Ulster again got themselves into a strong position but fantastic work by the impressive Sam Cross saw him win turnover ball close to his line, Darren Cave penalised for a high tackle on Giles as the Ospreys looked to run it out.
That sparked the Ospreys into life as they enjoyed their best spell of the game, the clock going into the final 10 minutes, good work by Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler rewarded with a penalty that allowed the hosts to set up camp in the Ulster 22.
However, on two occasions they lost the ball on their own throw and found themselves having to build again from inside their own half with five minutes to play.
When their scrum penalised inside the final minute Cooney was always going to go for the posts and he made no mistake to take Ulster eight clear.