The Ospreys strengthened their grip on a play-off spot with a seven try win over Zebre at the Liberty Stadium to open up a four point gap between themselves and Leinster in fifth place.
Dan Baker scored two tries while Josh Matavesi, Scott Baldwin, Rhys Webb and Hanno Dirksen all crossed, with a penalty try also going the Ospreys way. Man of the Match, Sam Davies, kicked 16 points with late replacement Dan Biggar adding two.
Zebre, with Brendon Leonard prominent ahead of his summer switch to Ospreylia, were stubborn throughout and refused to lie down for their hosts, scoring three tries of their own in an entertaining contest.
The Ospreys were in front inside three minutes, Baker with the opening try.
There was initial disappointment as a penalty from Davies rebounded back into play, but within seconds the Ospreys were over the line.
It came from the outside half running the clearance straight back at Zebre, a lovely show and go creating the opening, Davies carrying deep into opposition territory before finding support on his shoulder from his number eight who slid over for the try. Davies then added the extras.
Full back Guglielmo Palazzani had to be alert just a few minutes later to get back and beat Dirksen to Tom Habberfield’s grubber, conceding a scrum. The respite was only temporary though, as Baker did well to pick up at the base of scrum, draw the tackle and offload to Matavesi who went over from close range for his first try in the PRO12.
Davies was again successful with the conversion and the Ospreys led 14-0 with barely seven minutes on the clock.
Gonzalo Garcia got the visitors side of the scoreboard moving in the 11th minute, his scruffy long range penalty just having the distance to split the posts, before a brace of kicks from Davies stretched the lead to 17 points with 23 minutes gone.
Former All Black Leonard gave Ospreys supporters a glimpse of what to expect when he arrives for pre-season training at Llandarcy, with a lovely break from the back of a Zebre ruck, only to be hauled down metres short by his opposite number Habberfield before the hosts eventually won a turnover on their own line a couple of phases later.
After the explosive opening from the Ospreys the game had settled into a more even contest, the physical Italian side competing for everything and really making life difficult for their opponents.
The Ospreys stayed patient though, and the third try came with just five minutes left before the break. It was made by Tyler Ardron, the Canadian carrying well and shrugging off three defenders before showing great awareness to feed Baldwin on his outside, the hooker scoring his first try since the opening day of the season.
Davies was on target once more with a great kick from the left touchline, and the Ospreys led 27-3.
Zebre rallied again before the break, and duly grabbed their first try with the clock showing red. At an attacking five metre scrum, number eight Samuel Vunisa picked up the back, Leonard did the link work with quick hands, and Dion Berryman was unstoppable from a couple of metres out. Garcia’s conversion came back off the left hand upright.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 27 ZEBRE 8
With a bonus point in their sights, the Ospreys almost grabbed their fourth try inside two minutes of the restart. A huge scrum on halfway gave the Ospreys some go forward, Davies went through a gap in the defence before feeding Dirksen. The winger pinned his ears back and went for the line, only to be pulled down five metres short.
They thought the try had come just a couple of minutes later, Matavesi with an incredible show of acrobatics to collect a high ball behind him close to the touchline, readjust and, twisting and turning, stay in play to ground the ball. However, it was referred upstairs for a decision, and the try was disallowed for blocking by Dirksen.
The pressure from the Ospreys was relentless now and they really should have scored when Dirksen took a long pass on the left from Davies, with Jonathan Spratt free on his outside. He opted to go for the line himself though, only to lose the ball forward in the tackle.
The fourth try eventually came on 52 minutes, and it was a solo effort from Baker for his second of the night. James King secured good clean line out ball on Zebre’s 10m line, and Baker burst through contact into acres of open space. He ignored Matavesi on his right, opting to barge straight through Palazzani to score under the posts to give Davies the easiest of conversions.
Try five came on 62 minutes from Webb, 10 minutes or so after entering the fray. Baker, looking for his hat-trick, was stopped inches short, before a typical Webb sniping touch down. It was referred upstairs before the scrum half was eventually able to celebrate a try that took him to eight league tries for the season, equaling the all-time highest Ospreys tally, an accolade now shared by 7 different players.
As the Ospreys kept pushing they were caught with an absolute sucker punch as Giulio Tonilatti intercepted Ardron’s telegraphed miss pass, meant for Baker, to race from inside his own 22 to score under the posts. Mirco Bergamasco’s conversion made it 41-15 with 10 to play.
Webb looked destined for sole ownership of the region’s PRO12 try scoring record two minutes later, taking the ball from the back of the scrum and chipping over the cover, only to be blocked by Michele Visentin as he went for the line.
After what seemed like an absolute eternity the referee and TMO eventually decided on a penalty try, Visentin went to the bin for the rest of the match and the conversion from Biggar, on for Davies, took the Ospreys to within two points of the half century.
That landmark was duly reached as they made the most of the extra man to stretch the Zebre defence across the field, creating an overlap on the left for Dirksen to grab his 20th try for the region, a score that took him up to ninth in the all-time list, level with Ryan Jones and one behind current team-mates, Ashley Beck and Rhys Webb.
There was still time for one last Zebre rally as the Italians pounded the line in the dying minutes, creating a try for Alberto Chillon, again converted by Bergamasco.