The Ospreys took a huge step towards securing a place in the end of season play-offs with a crucial win over Ulster at the Liberty Stadium.
- Ospreys end losing run with a hard fought over play-off rivals Ulster at the Liberty Stadium
- Habberfield, Ardron and Leonard score tries for the Ospreys, Biggar kicking nine points
- The Ospreys need a point from the final game next weekend, against the Scarlets, to ensure a play-off place
After three straight defeats in the Guinness PRO12, the region’s hopes of a top four finish were hanging in the balance going into the game against the side sitting one point and one place behind them, just outside of the play-off spots.
On a tense afternoon in Swansea, the Ospreys ended that losing run, Tom Habberfield and Tyler Ardron scoring tries in a first half where the home team were well on top, going in at the break with a 17-3 lead.
The second half saw Ulster dominate for long periods, but impressive Ospreys defence meant they were unable to make their possession count, The second 40 was scoreless until the last 150 seconds when replacement Brendon Leonard crossed for try number three, Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale responding almost immediately.
Dan Biggar scored nine points, three conversions and a first half penalty.
Although Ulster enjoyed early possession following Paddy Jackson’s kick-off, the Ospreys were able to defend it comfortably and after Justin Tipuric and Nicky Smith combined to win turnover ball in midlfield they were able to counter, eventually getting the opening score seven minutes.
First, their rolling maul almost paid off, Smith held up over the line for an Ospeys 5m scrum. Although Rhys Webb’s pass from the setpiece was scruffy, Ashley Beck was able to tidy things up before slipping the scoring pass to Habberfield, Biggar converting.
An evenly contested first quarter saw both sides looking to keep the ball alive, but with the defences largely up the task in hand, the next points went Ulster’s way from the boot of Paddy Jackson on 19 minutes, Tipuric penalised on the floor.
Then, six minutes later, Biggar restored the seven-point advantage with a kick from a central position on the Ulster 10m line.
It was always going to be edgy given how much was at stake, but as the clock turned past the half hour mark the Ospreys were starting to take control.
After a questionable knock-on call against them inside the Ulster 22 halted their initial progress, the Ospreys destroyed their opposition at the setpiece, Webb going for the line only to see his attempted offload to James King intercepted, allowing Ulster to clear.
A powerful Kieron Fonotia carry then took the home team deep inside opposition territory before the forwards took over, drawing in defenders to create an overalap out wide. Unfortunately, Biggar’s long pass to Keelan Giles had too much on it and the ball drifted forward.
The try the Ospreys deserved finally came in the final play of the half, and what a beauty it was. The ever reliable Evans was the creator, running the ball back at Ulster from inside his own half, carrying some 60m upfield before drawing Craig Gilroy, the opposition 15, and slipping it to Habberfield who, in turn, fed it to Ardron who raced under the posts to score.
Biggar’s conversion rounded off the half with his second conversion to take the Ospreys 14 clear.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 17 ULSTER 3
The Ospreys continued pressing following the restart, Evans and James King both carrying well to take their team close to the line only for Webb’s pass to go astray, allowing Luke Marshall to clear.
Stuart McCloskey should have done better for Ulster when he broke through midfield off the back of a scrum, carrying over the Ospreys 10m line, but he opted for contact rather than passing inside to the supporting player for what would have been a run-in, only to lose the ball forward.
Ulster kept pressing as first Andy Warwick broke the line before Kieran Treadwell was hauled down a couple of metres out, but the black wall was able to keep their line intact.
The Ospreys then did an outstanding job of disrupting an Ulster maul as they looked to inch forward from a lineout close to the line, eventually being awarded put in at the scrum that followed. If the cheers from the stands were loud at that decision, they were louder still when the scrum turned into a penalty in the Ospreys favour allowing Biggar to take his team 40m upfield.
It was all Ulster now, the Ospreys defence holding firm but loose kicking inviting the Irish to come back at them as the clock ticked past the hour with no change to the scoreboard.
Hearts were in mouths as, after wave after wave of Ulster pressure, a score seemed inevitable, only for aggressive defence from the Ospreys eventually forcing a mistake, the ball going to ground and Webb hacking upfield to clear.
Ulster kept coming back at the Ospreys and a powerful run up the left from Jacob Stockdale took Ulster close to the line but he couldn’t find Craig Gilroy inside, the ball going loose again.
A physical contest was taking its toll on both sides as the game broke up going into the final 10, but it was the visitors still enjoying all the territory and possession.
After soaking up so much pressure the Ospreys finally managed to get some field position and try number three duly arrived in the 78th minute via Leonard, on as a replacement for Webb, the scrum half capitalizing on good work by Fonotia to go under the posts to allow Biggar a simple, rushed, drop goal as the Ospreys went in chase of a fourth try that would have secured a bonus point and with that a semi-final with a game to go.
However, it was Ulster who scored almost immediately, Stockdale charging through the Ospreys defence too easily, Jackson adding the extras with just 20 seconds remaining.
Played continued for a couple of minutes as both teams looked for one last try, Ulster chasing a losing bonus, before Biggar eventually called time on the contest, putting it out as the Ospreys settled for four points.
They head west to face the Scarlets next Saturday (5.15pm KO) in the final round of the PRO12 season, knowing a point will ensure their season continues into the latter part of May.