The Ospreys marked the start of a new era with a home win but they were made to fight all the way by stubborn opponents at the Liberty Stadium on Friday night.
An early penalty try and a late touchdown from Andrew Bishop, along with eleven points from Dan Biggar and a late Matthew Morgan conversion helped see the Ospreys home in what proved to be a scrappy, stop-start affair.
There was almost a try for the Ospreys inside 120 seconds, Rhys Webb collecting a Tito Tebaldi clearance on halfway and instantly getting his backline moving, the ball passing through hands all the way across the field to Eli Walker who was hauled down inches short of the line.
The hosts kept up the pressure with Aironi pinned in their 22 and Italian indiscipline saw an Ospreys free-kick at the scrum marched forward 10m, close to the Aironi line. Unsurprisingly, the Ospreys opted to go for a reset, their pack rumbling forward with ease, and when their progress was halted illegally referee Marius Mitrea ran straight underneath the posts to signal a penalty try. Biggar’s conversion made it 7-0 with just five minutes gone, taking his personal tally for the season past the 200 mark.
The Ospreys were well in control in these opening exchanges, looking to run the ball at every opportunity. Walker again almost found a way through the Aironi defence, combining well with Biggar on the left hand side, before the referee’s whistle prevented Bishop from cantering over for a try following a knock-on in the build-up.
Aironi had failed to get out of their own half in the opening quarter but they really should have grabbed a try 23 minutes in, good work from Tebaldi seeing the scrum-half squeezing through the smallest gap in the Ospreys defence before looking to offload to Nicola Cattina who was in support on his shoulder. The blindside would have been left with a simple run to the line from 30m out had he gathered but he appeared to slightly overrun Tebaldi and knocked on as he looked to gather a ball that was slightly behind him. With the referee playing an advantage the Ospreys ran it straight back from deep, Aironi’s defence scrambling to cover, and when they were pinged for going off their feet Biggar made no mistake, stretching the lead to 10-0.
Aironi were reduced to 14 on the half-hour mark after Touch Judge James Jones alerted the referee’s attention to an off-the-ball offence by Mauro Bergamasco, the veteran Italian having to spend the rest of the first half in the sinbin.
The Italians responded by putting together their best spell of rugby so far, Naas Olivier’s break cutting the Ospreys open before feeding Gabriel Pizarro who ignored the man outside him to go for the line, Biggar and Ashley Beck combining to close the gap and halt the centre’s progress.
Just before half-time the Ospreys squandered a good opportunity having worked themselves to just five metres short of the Aironi line with a series of pick and drives, but as the Italians looked to slow things down at the breakdown with the numbers out wide in the Ospreys favour, the ball was fumbled at the back of the ruck, giving the visitors a scrum that allowed them to clear, bringing the opening half to an end.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 10 AIRONI 0
A great break by Biggar at the start of the second half saw him split the Aironi defence as he carried 40m upfield before dinking a little grubber towards the corner for Walker to chase. The youngster got to the ball first, toe-poking it towards the line where Giulio Toniolatti knocked on as he tried to gather, giving the Ospreys the put-in in a dangerous position.
The Ospreys had dominated the set-piece, being awarded countless free-kicks or penalties in the opening half, but on this occasion the decision went the other way, allowing Aironi to put the ball back upfield.
Minutes later, a Biggar penalty from a central position 30m out bisected the posts, moving the scoreboard up to 13-0, and taking Biggar’s Ospreys career total to 900 points.
The Ospreys again threatened the Aironi line, Richard Hibbard, Hanno Dirksen, Andrew Bishop and Richard Fussell all making the hard yards as they inched towards the line but a turnover two metres out allowed Aironi to break at pace, Tebaldi carrying well before releasing Bergamasco who charged towards halfway where the chasing Dirksen managed to haul him into touch.
Aironi should have got themselves on the scoreboard 55 minutes in but Olivier was off target from in front of the posts, the touch judges keeping their flags down after consulting with each other.
He was given a chance to go again just 60 second later though after Joe Bearman found himself isolated and was penalised for holding on, but again he was off target with what seemed a straightforward kick.
The game seemed to have lost it’s way a little bit with plenty of perspiration but little by way of inspiration, neither side able to hold onto the ball long enough to really threaten.
A penalty against Aironi for driving in at the scrum allowed Biggar to make it 16-0 just after the hour, before the fly-half put his team in the corner from a penalty after hands in the ruck. From the lineout the pack rumbled forward towards the line and the try seemed a certainty, but somehow the Italians were able to steal possession on their own line.
Aironi then made a mess of dealing with a Dirksen up and under, the South African chasing his own kick well, but as he looked to hack the loose ball on he just got too much on it and the ball ran straight over the dead ball line.
The visitors eventually got their opening score through wing Sinoti Sinoti, Aironi taking advantage of some hesitation in the Ospreys defence. Tom Isaacs was caught in possession on his own 22, Aironi stripped the ball and worked it wide where Pizarro broke the line before offloading to Sinoti who was able to evade Dirksen’s attempted tackle to score under the posts, Olivier converting.
The Ospreys hit straight back, getting their second try a minute later through Andrew Bishop who collected the loose ball on halfway after a big hit by James King, the centre having a clear run through to score, again under the posts, Morgan converting to take his team 16 clear again.
Aironi spent the final minutes pressing the Ospreys line but were unable to find a way through as the home defence held firm.