Ronan O'Gara broke Ospreys hearts at the Liberty Stadium tonight, his penalty with the final kick of the game condemning the hosts to a defeat that leaves them one point adrift of the play-offs with just one game remaining.
Kicking off in perfect rugby conditions, it was a frantic opening with both teams looking to attack from the off, an early James Hook run and a Nikki Walker chip and chase giving the home fans something to cheer early on, before Munster came back at them, some good tactical kicking pinning the hosts back inside their own territory.
With 12 minutes on the clock Munster almost caught the Ospreys with a classic sucker punch after winning a penalty at the scrum deep inside their own half. As they looked to attack, Lifeimi Mafi was able to break through centre Tommy Bowe’s tackle on halfway before the ball was fed to Keith Earls on the wing. He chipped forward, backing himself to beat Bowe and Richard Fussell in a footrace but the Ospreys wing did well, hitting Earls as he collected the bouncing ball on the line, forcing a knock-on.
Despite that early decision against them at the set-piece, the Ospreys were enjoying the upper hand in the scrum, and it was from a such a penalty that they almost grabbed the opening try on 20 minutes. Patiently working the ball right and then back to the left again from the lineout, they eventually worked an overlap, Fussell and Richard Hibbard freeing James Hook who was just caught by Conor Murray as he looked to ground it in the corner, TMO Tony Rowlands correctly ruling that the departing centre had a foot in touch.
It was Munster who eventually opened the scoring with a straightforward penalty from Ronan O’Gara after Bowe had been penalised for not releasing the ball as he was caught trying to run it out of defence,
The Ospreys were forced to defend frantically again after Rhys Webb was overpowered as he looked to run the ball out from a lineout, Munster forcing turnover ball. O’Gara’s little chip behind the defence bounced invitingly for Mafi, but as he looked to gather Walker was able to make the tackle, again forcing a knock-on as the try-line beckoned.
It was an intriguing game, with neither side really able to stamp their authority on affairs, and the Ospreys again pushed forward, enjoying a decent spell of possession without finding a way through, before Munster had their turn, hooker Damien Varley carrying well before the ball was recycled, David Wallace forcing his way over despite the best efforts of Webb and Dan Biggar, the TMO awarding the try after much consideration, O’Gara adding the extras.
With 35 minutes gone, Biggar was eventually able to get the Ospreys on the scoreboard after a penalty against Mafi for coming in from the side.
A quickly taken Ospreys line-out then saw the unlikely figure of Richard Hibbard going on a bulldozing run up the flank, making 30m before James Coughlan and O’Gara managed to bundle him into touch, and then a jinking run from Fussell again saw the Ospreys making progress as they ended the first half positively.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 3 MUNSTER 10
The Ospreys needed to get the second half off to a flying start, but instead, they found themselves going further behind within 90 seconds, O’Gara’s boot doing the damage after Walker was penalised for not releasing the ball.
The Ospreys responded well, showing positive intent and winning a penalty after Donnacha Ryan literally dived into a ruck. The tough judges were unsure as to whether the ball had passed between the sticks or not, Nigel Owens asking referee Jerome Garces to refer it to the TMO, who after much deliberating ruled out the score.
The Ospreys kept the momentum going and got their first try of the evening in the 52nd minute, out-Munstering Munster at their own game, a rolling maul from an attacking line-out taking them 20m forward towards the line. With the referee playing penalty advantage it was skipper Alun Wyn Jones who drove over from close range to score, Biggar converting.
Jones almost made it two tries just 90 seconds later after fantastic runs from Fussell and Webb took their team back up to the Munster line from deep inside their own half. Jones thought he’d forced his way over again, only to be pulled back for an Ospreys penalty, much to the home crowd’s annoyance.
From the resulting penalty the Ospreys opted for the scrum, and with the fans urging them on they drove forward. Four times it was reset as Munster buckled, and the fifth time Monsieur Garces had no choice but to run between the sticks arm aloft, Biggar having a simple task to convert, taking the score to 17-13 in the Ospreys favour with just under an hour played.
Webb showed good alertness with a darting run after collecting a loose ball near halfway, but his grubber through was just too far for him as Mafi did a very good job of blocking his route to the line.
It was enthralling stuff, first Webb forced into a last ditch tackle on Mafi as he carved his way through the Ospreys defence, before Alun Wyn Jones put in a big hit on O’Gara as he looked to find a way through, forcing a turnover ball to relieve a spell of concerted Munster pressure as the game hung in the balance.
Munster were handed the opportunity to reduce the deficit to a solitary point after the Ospreys were penalised at a scrum, despite their dominance throughout the game in that area, and O’Gara made no mistake.
Indiscipline proved costly again just a minute or so later, Alun Wyn Jones pinged for coming in from the side as he looked to secure the ball, O’Gara edging Munster back ahead with just eight minutes remaining.
On an evening of drama there was still more twists and turns to come, and the Ospreys thought they had secured victory when Hook slotted over a penalty from over 30m out in the 76th minute.
As you would expect, Munster piled on the pressure in the final minutes, looking to snatch the win away from the Ospreys and O’Gara went close with a drop goal from in front of the posts as the seconds ticked by.
There was to be one final twist though, Jerry Collins penalised for a high tackle on Felix Jones just inside the Munster half, which saw the Ospreys forced to play the final 90 seconds with 14 men. More importantly, it handed the initiative to the Munster men, with O’Gara’s boot taking them back into the Ospreys 22, from where they were able to build field position to set up another drop goal attempt. As Peter Stringer looked to feed the fly-half, the Ospreys defence rushed out to charge down, resulting in a penalty for offside.
O’Gara made no mistake with the final kick of the game to break Ospreys hearts and leave them desperately hoping for a favour from Newport Gwent Dragons over the next two weeks to give them any hope of progressing to the play-offs.