The Ospreys secured the narrowest of wins over Zebre at the Liberty Stadium on Friday evening, but were made to fight every inch of the way as the Italians secured a losing bonus point.
Zebre outscored their opponents two tries to one, but the Ospreys were grateful to Dan Biggar, who scored all his side’s points on a night where they never really clicked or found the rhythm that had seen them win eight of their previous nine games in the PRO12.
After an untidy opening, with both sides struggling to retain possession, it was the Italians who opened the scoring nine minutes in, Alberto Chillon slotting over a straightforward penalty from 30m out after Jonathan Thomas was pinged for not rolling away.
The response from the Ospreys saw them predictably stepping up a gear, attempting to assert their authority on the contest, without creating any real opportunities. The best they could muster in the opening 15 minutes was a clever line break from Rhys Webb, the scrum-half spotting a gap in the Zebre defence as he collected the lineout ball on the 10m line, bursting through to the 22 only to lose his footing as two defenders closed in on him.
However, the game was level in the 19th minute, Biggar making no mistake after Michael Van Vuuren was guilty of a similar offence to Thomas earlier.
The Ospreys defence then had to be alert to snuff out the Zebre threat as Alberto Benettin sliced through the middle, James King tracking back well to intercept the fullback’s offload.
The visitors retook the lead on 25 minutes with the first try of the game, the points again coming from scrumhalf Chillon. It was a classic sucker punch, Andries van Schalkwyk the catalyst, stealing the ball on halfway with a well timed interception of Tom Isaacs floated pass and charging upfield. The ball was moved through several pairs of hands before the big number eight again drove forward, Thomas halting him a metre short of the line. The alert Chillon was on hand to pick up and dive over, before missing the conversion attempt.
Biggar then kicked his second penalty of the night after Italian hands in the ruck, bringing up the half hour.
Zebre were reduced to 14 minutes before the break, van Schalkwyk sinbinned after illegally halting an Ospreys driving maul that was rumbling towards the line. Having enjoyed a clear advantage in the scrum eight on eight, with an extra man in the pack it was no surprise to see the hosts opt for the setpiece.
On the first occasion the Ospreys turned the screw, inching towards the line, only for the scrum to go down, resulting in a second penalty. After the reset, Zebre once again went in retreat. Thomas opted to pick up and go for the line only to be held up, allowing referee Neil Paterson to blow for the break.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 6 ZEBRE 8
Biggar had a chance to put the Ospreys ahead five minutes after the restart, following a huge scrum from the home pack that saw Zebre driven back 10m before the penalty was awarded, but the Ospreys’ 10’s radar was off and his kick drifted wide of the sticks.
The Ospreys were enjoying the lions share of possession and territory but were lacking a cutting edge, Zebre defending their line without any real issues as the clock ticked into the final 30.
The hosts were almost made to pay the price after Tito Tebaldi danced his way past two challenges into the Ospreys 22. Paolo Buso was in support but he just overran it, forcing Buso to delay the offload for what looked a certain try, giving the defence the opportunity to scramble and snuff out the threat.
A penalty against Matthew Morgan for holding on after he had run into a brick wall attempting to carry the ball out of defence offered Zebre another attempt to go for the posts. The Italian’s timewasting techniques and antics at the breakdown were infuriating the home crowd, who were delighted to see Daniel Halangahu’s kick from the Ospreys 10m go wide of the sticks.
The Ospreys showed then good patience to work their way upfield, the forwards making the hard yards with a series of drives to suck in defenders, an offside offence eventually allowing Biggar to split the uprights, his penalty putting the hosts ahead for the first time with less than 20 to play.
The breakthrough for the hosts followed just a couple of minutes later and it was a wonderfully crafted team score, taking advantage of a Zebre knock-on deep inside their own 22 to go the length of the field and score.
Richard Fussell, on for Matthew Morgan, was the catalyst, pouncing on Samuel Pace’s knock-on and launching immediate counter attack. Isaacs carried well up the left flank, the ball came back across the width of the field to Ross Jones on the right. He fed Kahn Fotuali’i on his inside, who immediately offloaded to Biggar who trotted over to score before picking himself up to convert.
Just as the home fans thought the game was safe, Zebre hit straight back with their second try of the night within two minutes. Again van Schalkwyk provided the spark with a powerful charge, shrugging off a challenge to offload to Tebaldi on the blindside, the replacement scrum half going over in the corner. The successful conversion from Halangahu brought Zebre back to within a point with just under 10 minutes remaining.
Zebre continues pressing and the influential Halangahu almost found a way through, before a surreal moment in the Zebre half saw Pace look to take a quick tap penalty, haring away with an open field in front of him, only to find his progress halted by a Zebre medic leaving the field, who produced a sliding tackle on his own man that Bobby Moore would have been proud of, much to the relief of the home fans.
The Ospreys were able to see out the closing minutes to secure the win, but left the field disappointed with the performance despite leapfrogging local rivals the Scarlets to go into the top four, even if it may prove only temporary with Munster entertaining Cardiff Blues on Saturday night.