The Ospreys sit one point clear at the top of the PRO12 table going into 2015 after a 17th consecutive win against Welsh opposition in the competition.
It was far to close to comfort for the hosts in the closing stages, the Scarlets threatening to claim the spoils after the Ospreys had built up an 11 point lead thanks to a dominant second quarter where Aisea Natoga and Dan Lydiate grabbed a try apiece.
Despite a poor second half showing, the Ospreys were able to see it out to send home the largest crowd at a Welsh regional rugby for two years, of more than 15,000, very content at the halfway point of the season.
Boxing Day’s combination of heavy rainfall and a Premiership football match meant that the Liberty surface was very soft underfoot, and the heavens opening just before kick-off wouldn’t have helped. However, in the circumstances, the ground staff had done a sterling job to get the pitch looking more than adequate.
After some cagey opening exchanges it was the Scarlets who grabbed the opening points via the boot of Rhys Priestland from some 45m after the hosts were pinged at the scrum.
Within a minute the Scarlets were down to 14 men after the TMO was asked to look at a spear tackle in midfield, Kristian Phillips getting 10 minutes in the bin for a dangerous challenge on Dan Evans. The former Osprey could consider himself more than a little fortuitous not to have seen red, the large home crowd voicing their disapproval as Phillips headed to the bench.
Just 60 seconds or so after that the Ospreys were level, a Scarlets player not rolling away, to hand Dan Biggar a simple shot at goal.
It was evenly contested, with a big of niggle off the ball as you’d expect in a local derby, and there was little between the two teams as we reached the end of the first quarter, when Steve Shingler nudged the Scarlets ahead from the 10m line after an offside against the Ospreys.
The response from the Ospreys was an instant one, Justin Tipuric charging down Liam Williams’ clearance kick inside his own 22, the ball falling for Tyler Ardron, who appeared to hold off four defenders and slide over the line to score under the posts.
However, it was referred upstairs by referee Marius Mitrea for a decision, with the question ‘is there any reason I cannot award a try?’, and despite Derek Bevan not actually finding any reason – his response was that the footage was inconclusive – between them the officials somehow managed to disallow the score.
With the game toing and froing, the Ospreys did grab the first try of the evening just before the half hour through Natoga, his first touch of the ball after replacing Eli Walker. The Scarlets had possession just inside their half when the ball went to ground and it was Hanno Dirksen who reacted first to scoop the ball up and hare towards the line. He was hauled down just short but the Fijian was up in support and Dirksen popped the ball up of the floor for him to gratefully catch and dive over, Biggar converting.
It got better for the Ospreys just four minutes later when Lydiate grabbed the second try, his first for his new region on his first start. It came from a powerful driving maul that marched the Scarlets back over their line at a rate of knots and, this time, the referee and TMO managed to find the right question and answer combination. Biggar’s conversion was again on target and the Ospreys were leading 17-6.
An offside in front of the posts allowed Shingler to keep the Scarlets in touching distance, although there was still time for the Ospreys to threaten once more before the break, Lydiate peeling off the back of another lineout drive to be held up just short.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 17 SCARLETS 9
The Ospreys began the second half with a rare penalty miss from Biggar, his long-range effort from close to halfway after the scrum went down fading and dropping short.
There was little to get excited about from either side in the opening exchanges of the second half, although the Scarlets were enjoying the greater territory and possession, and the Ospreys had to be alert to snuff out the danger after losing the ball on their own scrum, Phillips eventually knocking on close to the touchline as he tried to arc his was around the defence.
With 55 minutes gone the Scarlets were back to within five, Shingler again with the boot after Arhip was penalised at a scrum on the 22m line.
It was the Scarlets voices in the crowd that were loudest as the visitors were able to maintain their grip on the game, the thrilling, all action first half from the Ospreys a distant memory as they struggled to get any meaningful possession.
With 65 minutes gone Scott Baldwin’s illegal use of hands in the ruck gave Shingler another sight of the posts and he made no mistake, the scoreboard now reading 17-15 in the Ospreys favour with 15 minutes to play.
The Scarlets kept piling bodies into contact, looking to either punch a hole in the Ospreys defence or win a penalty, but the black line was able to hold firm to frustrate the opposition, and having won a penalty for holding on inside their own 22, Biggar was able to put the ball up the other end, from where the Ospreys were able to close out the final minutes without to secure the win.