Dan Biggar kicked 18 points as the Ospreys secured the narrowest of wins against Ulster at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday evening.
Marty Holah scored the only Ospreys try, as a huge team effort saw them overcome an early 13 point deficit to move within two points of the Scarlets in fourth place, the 23-22 win cementing the region’s place at the Magners League top points scorers so far this campaign.
It was Ulster who were on the early offensive, and Rhys Webb had to be alert to deal with an Adam D’arcy kick that bounced awkwardly, forcing the scrum half to take it over his own line under pressure from Craig Gilroy. The Ospreys were penalised at the resultant scrum five, allowing Ian Humphreys to open the scoring with a simple kick.
The Ospreys did well at the restart, a series of powerful forward drives taking them deep into Ulster territory, only for Holah to over hit a grubber through to the corner when he had options on his outside.
With ten minutes on the clock, Humphreys was able to double the Ulster lead after a host of Ospreys were caught offside 30m out, slightly to the right of the posts.
Despite trailing, the Ospreys had shown some positive early intent, and once again from the restart they built a sustained period of pressure. Holah, Jerry Collins and Ian Evans all took to turns to carry, before the ball was spread wide, and only the referee’s whistle for a forward pass by Richard Fussell halted a simple run-in for Tom Prydie.
Having almost scored at one end, Prydie was in defensive action just minutes later, trying to stop Humphreys from grounding his own hack forward as the ball fell loose. Unfortunately, his endeavours to prevent a certain score led only to a penalty try being awarded by Neil Paterson, allowing Humphreys to pick himself up and convert, making it 13-0 to the visitors with just 14 gone.
Biggar then slotted over a penalty three minutes later after an Ulster offence at the scrum to register the first points of the afternoon for the Ospreys.
As the game moved into the second quarter Humphreys had a chance to take Ulster’s lead back up to 13 points but his kick from close to the touchline was off target.
Some patient rugby from the Ospreys, with Collins, Duncan Jones and Huw Bennett all making good ground, led to a penalty that seemed in kickable range, but Biggar spurned the three points to go for the corner. The Ospreys were rewarded for their positive intent with their first try of the game, Ashley Beck’s long miss-pass sending Holah over in the corner for only his second try in his 89th appearance for the region. Biggar was unsuccessful with the conversion attempt from a difficult angle leaving it 13-8 to the visitors.
Biggar made amends on the half-hour mark with a penalty from the 10m line after Bryan Young was guilty of bringing down the scrum, bringing the Ospreys to within two points.
Ulster were reduced to 14 on the stroke of half-time, Tim Barker shown yellow for a cynical trip on Webb as he looked to burst through a gap near halfway, handing Biggar the opportunity to slot over a huge kick from five metres inside his own half to put the Ospreys in front for the first time.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 14 ULSTER 13
It was the visitors who were given the first opportunity of the second period, Ruan Pienaar making no mistake with a penalty after Cai Griffiths was caught offside.
Despite being a man short, Ulster were controlling territory and possession at this stage, and they duly extended their lead through another Pienaar effort after Tom Smith was penalised for sealing the ball off, just as Barker rejoined the action.
An offside decision in the Ospreys favour then allowed Biggar to put over his fourth penalty of the game to take his team back to within two points.
With the Ospreys slowly getting on top, illegal hands in the ruck from Nevin Spence handed Biggar a chance to put the Ospreys back in front and he made no mistake from just to the right of the sticks.
Aggressive Ospreys defence was making life difficult for Ulster, and after an enforced knock-on Declan Fitzpatrick was pinged for the double offence of not binding and then going to ground, Biggar was able to take the score to 23-19 in the Ospreys favour with a little over a quarter of an hour remaining.
It was an entertaining battle, and once again Ulster came back at the Ospreys, working themselves into a good position in the opposition 22, only for Chris Henry to knock on as he looked to find a way through a well organised home defence.
The Ulster pressure finally told, the Ospreys conceding a penalty right in front of the posts, allowing Pienaar to bring his team back to within a point with just six to go.
As the Ospreys looked to close the game out Biggar had the chance to stretch the lead back up to four but his long range penalty just failed to find the target, allowing Ulster to counter attack. However, once again dogged Ospreys defence prevented their opponents from making too much ground and they were able to see out the final minute to secure what could prove to be a crucial win in the race for the Magners League Grand Final.