The Ospreys had to settle for a losing bonus point at Ravenhill after a late rally almost saw them secure what had looked the unlikeliest of wins.
Having taken the lead through a Joe Bearman try, the Ospreys had found themselves under intense pressure throughout and trailed by eight points with just two minutes remaining. A wonderful solo effort from Eli Walker set up a grandstand finish but Ulster held out to inflict only a fourth PRO12 defeat of the season on the region.
It was a scrappy start with both teams surrendering possession unnecessarily in the early stages, but Ulster were the first to threaten when Richard Fussell misread a Ruan Pienaar up and under. Referee Neil Hennessy missed a Nevin Spence knock-on as the centre looked to gather the bouncing ball, allowing the hosts to swarm forward in numbers but the Ospreys defence was able to scramble, snuffing out the danger.
With the breeze at their backs the Ulstermen were slowly able to take a grip on the game, controlling possession and territory. They had a chance to take the lead 12 minutes in after a penalty was awarded against Bearman for leaving the lineout early, but Pienaar’s kick from the 10m line was well wide of the right hand upright.
The Ospreys made their first inroads into enemy territory as the clock reached 15 minutes, Ulster indiscipline proving costly as Pedrie Wanneburg was yellow carded for a deliberate trip as Kahn Fotuali’i looked to take a quick penalty 22m out. Playing into the wind, Biggar opted to go to the corner and although the lineout ball wasn’t the best the Ospreys were able to keep up the pressure. Biggar and Walker were both held up just short but there was no stopping Bearman, the big number eight twisting and turning in the tackle to place the ball on the line to score his first Ospreys try, Biggar converting to make it 7-0.
The referee was incurring the wrath of the home support with the game barely a quarter of the way though as a number of marginal decisions went against Ulster, preventing them from building up any real momentum as they continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession.
World Cup winner Pienaar brought up the half hour with Ulster’s first three points from close to the right touchline after Walker had found himself isolated as the Ospreys tried running it out from deep, and just two minutes later the South African went close from the other side of the field after Lewis was penalised at a ruck, this time the ball striking the post.
It was all Ulster as the first half drew to a close and they won good turnover ball, stripping Scott Baldwin in the tackle, allowing them to break up the left at the pace, only for the Ospreys defence to get across, Sam Lewis stealing Ian Whitten’s infield pass just as it looked as though the hosts were going to find their way through.
Again the Irish side came back at the Ospreys, putting the visitors under intense pressure. Awarded a penalty at the scrum five metres out, Wanneburg seemed to make the wrong choice by taking a quick tap penalty to go for the line. The visitors were able to keep them at bay, stopping the forwards from edging towards the line, but when Ulster finally looked to move it wide Biggar failed to gather as he attempted to intercept a pass intended for Whitten. Mr Hennessy ruled it a deliberate knock-on and gave the Ospreys a double blow of awarding the penalty try and sending Biggar to the sin bin. Pienaar’s simple conversion meant that Ulster went in three points to the good.
HALF-TIME: ULSTER 10 OSPREYS 7
A man short, but now with a strong wind at their backs, it was important that the Ospreys began the second half on the offensive, but despite some early pressure it was Ulster who got the first score of the second half, scoring in the corner through Paddy Wallace.
The try was a reward for Ulster’s patience as they went through a series of pick and go’s, Wannenburg and Chris Henry in particular making hard yards, sucking in defenders to create an overlap out wide when they finally opened the game up. It was Whitten who provided the scoring pass for Wallace to stretch Ulster’s lead, Pienaar again missing with his kick meaning the Ospreys trailed by eight points with half an hour to go.
Ulster tails were up and they were in control of the game and a lovely move almost saw them craft a third try minutes later, but a thunderous hit by Fotuali’i on Whitten forced the wing into touch just a metre out, preventing a certain score.
Having absorbed so much pressure the Ospreys managed to work their way back in the game as it moved into the final quarter. Dirksen was looking the likeliest outlet and it was his clearing kick from inside the Ospreys 22 that had Ulster backpedalling, his chase worrying Stefan Terblanche as the young wing ate up the former Ospreys’ headstart. The old head was in a dangerous position completely isolated, but he used all his experience to win a penalty in his own 22 as he went to ground to gather, the referee deciding that Dirksen’s challenge was a dangerous one.
The Ospreys backline hadn’t seen much of the ball but with 15 minutes to go they were finally able to work something, the ball going right through the hands to find Dirksen out wide. He sidestepped Whitten and advanced towards the line, only for Terblanche to upend him 10m out, the ball going forward as he looked to offload.
Once again it was all getting a little bit scrappy, the Ospreys unable to fashion something likely to help them break down a stubborn Ulster defence, and for their part, the hosts also struggling at this stage to find any kind of rhythm.
With time running out the Ospreys finally managed to create something, the ball worked wide to Walker close to the touchline and the teenager showed great composure and skill to step inside, leaving Gilroy for dead before sidestepping Terrblanche and going for the line, the TMO confirming that the wing had just managed to ground it for his first ever PRO12 try.
Biggar’s conversion secured the bonus point with 80 seconds remaining, and when Ulster put the ball long into the Ospreys 22 from the restart it seemed that was it. However, Dirksen and Ashley Beck combined wonderfully to race forward, taking the ball back up deep into Ulster territory. When they were eventually halted, with the clock showing time, Matthew Morgan tried to find Walker in the far corner with a delicate cross-kick that the wing just failed to collect, allowing a relieved Ulster to put the ball dead and claim the narrowest of wins.