The Ospreys secured their first win of the season with a tough and gritty performance at the home of their arch rivals.
The two teams went into the game in contrasting form, the Scarlets sitting at the top of the formative PRO12 table with three wins from three, while the Ospreys sat just one of the bottom with just two losing bonus points to their name, but they turned the formbook on its head to kick-start their title defence.
In an evenly contested affair that was all square at nine apiece as we went into the final 10 minutes, there were late tries for replacement Ryan Jones and wing Hanno Dirksen to complement Dan Biggar’s 13 with the boot, a try from George North with time up ensuring the Scarlets didn’t finish empty handed.
After an impeccably observed minute’s silence in memory of the late Nevin Spence, the Ireland centre who passed away in such tragic circumstances last weekend, it was Biggar who got the game underway.
The Ospreys fly-half was off target with a drop goal attempt inside the first 60 seconds, and then a high tackle on George Earle from Joe Bearman sparked an early bout of handbags before Rhys Priestland opened the scoring from the resulting penalty in front of the posts just three minutes in.
That drew a positive response from the men in black, the Scarlets failing to deal with Biggar’s up and under, and as the Ospreys managed to put together some early phases the penalty eventually went their way for coming in from the side. Biggar’s kick from a metre infield split the posts, levelling things in the seventh minute.
It was very tit-for-tat in the opening stages and just a couple of minutes later the decision went against Duncan Jones as the scrum went down, giving Priestland the chance to nudge his side back in front but he sliced it well wide to the right of the sticks.
The Scarlets 10 was given another go, from the halfway line, after Aaron Jarvis was pinged for not rolling away, and his long range attempt just scraped in off the inside of the right hand post.
A clever Richard Fussell kick to the corner sparked a period of Ospreys pressure, and after the next scrum went down, followed by another front row dust-up, the verdict was penalty Ospreys, against Deacon Manu, allowing Biggar to level once again.
A penalty against Ian Evans a metre inside the Ospreys half, for a high tackle on former team-mate Richard Kelly, gave Priestland the chance to go for goal on the 20 minute mark but again he failed to find the target.
A wonderful break from Scott Williams saw him cutting through the Ospreys defence before offloading, and after moving it left and then back to the right it looked as tough the hosts had carved an opening, Tavis Knoyle feeding Andy Fenby in the corner. However, the TMO Derek Bevan confirmed that the wing had lost the ball before gounding, the tackle from George Stowers proving crucial.
At the other end, a penalty for killing the ball saw Biggar going for the posts from 50m out, but his radar was inches off.
It was enthralling stuff and a break from Andrew Bishop put the Ospreys back on the offensive, taking his team close to the line. They kept possession well, building play through 10 phases, but unfortunately, Hanno Dirksen knocked on as he took the pass just a metre or so out.
The Scarlets were under huge pressure at the scrum and having lost the ball on their own put in their defence was all at sea, a penalty eventually going to the Ospreys for players going off their feet at the ruck. Once again there was fisticuffs, the home support infuriated by something they spotted in the melee, but Biggar ignored the catcalls to put his side ahead for the first time with six minutes to go until the break.
The Ospreys then almost took advantage of a Scarlets mix up deep inside their own territory, the ball going to ground allowing Tom Isaacs to hack forward. Tom Grabham looked set to win the race for the line, only to be impeded by Liam Williams as he chased the ball, the officials somehow contriving to miss the offence.
HALF-TIME: SCARLETS 6 OSPREYS 9
The Scarlets made a change in the front row at the break, Wales U20 tighthead Samson Lee replacing Manu, but the first scrum went exactly the same way, allowing Biggar to put the Ospreys in the corner.
From the lineout, the impressive Andrew Bishop flattened Fenby with an almighty hand-off as the Ospreys worked their way close to the line, eventually creating an overlap on the right. Fussell fed Dirksen what should have been a scoring pass, the South African juggling it before grounding, only for the ref to rule that the final ball had crept forward.
Back came the Scarlets, an offence at the breakdown resulting in a penalty against the Ospreys in a central position close to their 10m line and Priestland made no mistake, bringing the Scarlets level nine minutes into the second half.
The Ospreys had done well to shackle the Scarlets powerful runners to this stage, but George North served up a reminder, attacking the heart of the defence from deep inside his own half and then, with the visitors looking stretched, Kahn Fotuali’i had to be alert to read Priestland’s dink behind the cover, getting there ahead of North to ground it.
The Scarlets were enjoying their best spell of the game, but Priestland failed to take the chance to put them back in front after a penalty against Aaron Jarvis at the scrum, pulling his kick across the face of the posts.
Although the Scarlets had looked better in the scrum during the third quarter, as the clock turned 60 minutes they found themselves a man short after replacement prop Lee was yellow carded for bringing the setpiece down.
Despite the numerical advantage the visitors remained under pressure, but another scrum penalty allowed them to get back up the other end, from where Biggar almost managed to work Dirksen in with a delicate grubber, the bounce of the ball beating the Ospreys wing.
A good kick chase from North put the Ospreys under pressure once more, multiple players failing to deal with the loose ball, and although Fotuali’i eventually managed to force Knoyle into touch just a metre out, somewhere in the melee Mr Hodges spotted an offence, awarding the penalty to the Scarlets.
Priestland’s kick from the left touchline looked to be going over but fortunately for the Ospreys it struck the inside of the post and bounced into Ospreys arms.
You couldn’t take your eyes off the action for a second, and a Fotuali’i box kick to the corner had to be dealt with by Liam Williams, just beating Dirksen to the ball at the expense of a lineout. Hibbard found his man and the Ospreys were able to rumble forward towards the line, Bevington carrying well before replacement Ryan Jones finished it off in the corner, marking his return from injury with a crucial try. With 9 minutes left, Biggar’s touchline conversion took the Ospreys seven points clear.
As the clock ticked down the Scarlets were looking to play their way back into the game but the Ospreys tightened their grip on things with a second, well worked backline move, Fussell’s show and go drawing two defenders before his slip pass gave Dirksen a simple finish.
Biggar’s conversion wrapped the game up, but with one play left there was still time for the Scarlets to secure a losing bonus point. Jonathan Thomas was yellow carded for collapsing the maul, and with the clock now past 80, a kick through allowed North to win the race, the TMO correctly calling the try.
Priestland’s conversion meant it finished 23-16, the win meaning that the South Wales Evening Post Cup returns to the Liberty Stadium once again with the Ospreys boasting seven wins and a draw from the last nine games against their local rivals.