The Ospreys suffered defeat for the first time this season as Ulster came from 12 points behind to claim victory.
It brought the region’s 13 month unbeaten run at the Liberty to an end, but the losing bonus point means the Ospreys climb to top spot in the PRO12 – even if it may be for just 24 hours.
After a fairly frenetic opening, a Joe Bearman charge upfield the early highlight, Ulster were the first side to put together any kind of concerted pressure, patiently going through multiple phases as they worked their way upfield to the Ospreys 22.
The clear tactic was to utilise the brute force of number eight Nick Williams wherever possible, the Ospreys ensuring he was the target of some big early hits to stop him making too many yards and they eventually forced a knock-on, allowing them to clear.
Ulster continued to enjoy the better of the opening exchanges without getting close to threatening the Ospreys line so they would have been disappointed to have gone behind in the 21st minute when Dan Biggar slotted over a penalty from the 22m line, an Ulster defender guilty of not rolling away moments after a wonderful piece of footballing improvisation from Bearman to control loose lineout ball.
The visitors responded by again putting together a long spell of pressure, a penalty allowing Paddy Jackson to take them into the Ospreys 22 where from the resulting lineout they inched across the field and forward, phase by phase, trying to find a way until David McIlwaine eventually knocked on close to the touchline 10m out.
It was engrossing stuff, if not always pretty, and Richard Fussell then put the Ospreys on the front foot with a trademark counterattack, gathering Jackson’s clearance kick and haring forward. Tito Tebaldi also carried well up the right flank, but the Ulster rearguard held firm.
With two minutes left until the interval there was still only three points separating the two teams, when Ashley Beck showed good pace and anticipation to burst through the Ulster defence following quick lineout ball, only to lose his footing as he carried into the 22. It was recycled and Hibbard continued the charge as Ulster scrambled to cover, only to accidentally run into his own man, Justin Tipuric, resulting in an offside call and a penalty to the visitors.
There was one last opportunity before the whistle went, courtesy of TMO Derek Bevan. A touch-judge’s flag had brought the ref’s whistle as the Ospreys brought down an Ulster maul for apparent foul-play from the men in back, but the penalty went the hosts way for a dangerous tackle on Alun Wyn Jones. Biggar duly doubled the lead from almost halfway with the final kick of the half.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 6 ULSTER 0
It was a nine-point lead within two minutes of the restart, Biggar making no mistake from close to the right hand touchline following an Ulster offside.
Just two minutes later the half-time lead had doubled, Biggar punishing Ulster once again after they had a tackler penalised for not rolling away.
Jackson finally got Ulster on the board in the 49th minute with a kick from the 10m line after Adam Jones was penalised at the scrum.
Bearman was then unfortunate to be pinged for offside when he seemed to have stolen Ulster’s lineout ball, tv replays showing the touch judge had made the right call as the ball had taken the slightest deflection his way off the unsuspecting form of Alun Wyn Jones. Jackson made no mistake as he brought Ulster back to within six points.
Referee Mr Fitzgibbon wasn’t endearing himself to either the Ospreys front-row or their supporters, and another penalty at the scrum allowed Jackson to slot over his third kick in eight minutes, taking it to 12-9 in the hosts favour.
With all the points in the first hour coming from the boot it would be easy to think this was a dour contest but the reality was far from it, the rising volume level inside the Liberty testament to the endeavour on show from both sides.
Ulster probed, another period of sustained pressure seeing them pressing the line as the Ospreys struggled to clear their lines, and when Ian Evans was penalised at a ruck in front of the posts, Jackson levelled it with 15 left on the clock.
The Ospreys then made a hash of an attacking move from a scrum on the Ulster 22, the ball going loose allowing Ulster to break at speed. Andrew Trimble put a kick through for McIlwainie to chase which Fussell looked to gather in his own 22, but a nudge in his back from the Ulster player was spotted by the ref, much to the relief of the home crowd.
With the game hanging in the balance, Ulster took the lead for the first time with just 8 minutes left, Jackson’s fifth penalty, after an offside call close to halfway.
It seemed like game over when, on 77 minutes, replacement tighthead Aaron Jarvis, on for Adam Jones, was penalised for laying on the wrong side of the ruck, an offence that resulted in a yellow card and three more points for Ulster.
The visitors failed to gather the restart, which led to a rip-roaring finale as the Ospreys pounded on the opposition line as they looked for a winning score at the death. The numbers were evened up when Ulster’s Stuart Olding was sinbinned for killing the ball as the Ospreys looked to find a way through.
An Ospreys knock on close to the Ulster line meant that the final play of the game, with just 17 seconds left on the clock, saw Adam returning to the field for an Ulster scrum on their line with the Ospreys needing to score. Roared on by the fans, the hosts destroyed their opponent’s set piece with a try seemingly the only outcome. However, over eagerness saw an offside decision go against them, allowing Paddy Jackson to bring the game to a close, punting the ball out behind the posts to send a big crowd of more than 10,000 home disappointed.