21 points from Dan Biggar and a try on his debut from Richard Fussell wasn't enough for the Ospreys as they had to settle for a losing bonus point on the opening night of the season at Ravenhill.
Biggar had a flawless evening with the boot, enjoying a 100 per cent strike rate, but it was a late penalty from Ulster's Niall O'Connor that saw his side home in a game that had ebbed and flowed throughout the 80 minutes
There was a late injury enforced change in the Ospreys starting line-up, prop Craig Mitchell failing to recover from a muscle spasm suffered during the team’s training session in Belfast on Thursday night. Cai Griffiths came into his replace him, while Duncan Jones was flown in from Ospreylia on Friday morning to take a place among the replacements due to the new Magners League requirement for a full front row on the bench. It was the first time that Jones had featured on an Ospreys team sheet since fracturing a tarsal bone in his right foot in the win over Munster at the Liberty Stadium last December.
Elsewhere in the Ospreys line-up, there was a competitive debut for summer signing Fussell who has been in good pre-season form since arriving from Newport Gwent Dragons. In the front row, experienced hooker Mefin Davies was featuring in a competitive match for the region for the first time since December 2004 after rejoining the Ospreys from Leicester Tigers.
There was some early season rustiness on display from both sides in the opening minutes, with unforced errors and knock-on’s seeing possession changing hands several times before Biggar got the first points of the evening with a penalty after Bryan Young was penalised for an offence in the scrum.
The untidiness continued with neither side managing to really build any early momentum but Ulster were able to level the scores with 11 minutes on the clock, Niall O’Connor successful with his penalty kick after the Ospreys were pinged for killing the ball. Five minutes he had a chance to put his side ahead after Davies was guilty of going off his feet at the ruck, but his attempt on goal was narrowly wide of the left upright.
Minutes later the hosts spurned the chance to go for goal from another penalty, opting to go for the line-out and it proved to be the right choice as they managed to score – if not in the manner they may have intended. Rory Best overshot his lineout throw, catching Jerry Collins by surprise as he attempted to gather the bouncing ball. The skipper failed to collect, allowing Stephen Ferris to pick-up and saunter over for a try, O’Connor converting.
Poor discipline at the breakdown cost the Ospreys again in the 22nd minute, O’Connor’s penalty making it 13-3, before Biggar was able to score his second penalty of the game after O’Connor strayed offside.
Having already spoken to Collins, referee Peter Allan finally run out of patience with the Ospreys, and Nikki Walker was sent to the sin-bin with 25 minutes on the clock after the officials ruled that he had tackled David McIlwaine in the air.
They made light of the one-man disadvantage though; leveling things up as the half hour approached with a debut try from Fussell. The try came from an Ulster line-out on their own 22, Ian Gough doing good work to steal the ball before it was spread the width of the pitch through some good passing, the winger going over in the corner to score, Biggar adding the extras.
Ulster responded well, and they struck back through a well-worked try through Darren Cave. Once again, it stemmed from a lineout, on this occasion Pedrie Wannenburg secured quick ball for his side, allowing them to move it right, and then, recycling it and taking advantage of the overlap where the absent Walker would have been, Cave having the simplest of tasks to score. O’Connor missed his conversion, leaving it 18-13 to the hosts.
Biggar then made it four from four after Young was penalised for not binding at the scrum, an offence for which he received a lengthy talking to from the referee, allowing the Ospreys to go in at the break trailing by just two points.
HALF-TIME: ULSTER 18 OSPREYS 16
Ulster were able to extend their lead almost immediately, the Ospreys guilty of blocking as they attempted to secure the restart, O’Connor scoring the penalty.
However, the Ospreys were handed the opportunity to hit back instantly when O’Connor’s loose pass in midfield went to ground. Andrew Bishop was able to hack the ball forward, and when Tommy Seymour failed to gather the loose ball, Biggar was there to take advantage, touching down to score before picking himself up to add the extras, putting his side ahead for the first time since the opening minutes.
O’Connor then failed to put his team back in front with a penalty on the 10m line, his effort never looking to have the distance or the direction. He was given the chance to make amends 90 seconds later after Collins was penalised for not rolling away after the tackle and this time he was successful with his effort from 5m closer to the posts.
Biggar was enjoying a prolific evening, and he put the Ospreys back in front with a long range penalty on the hour, as his coaches sent on the first replacements of the night, amongst them prop Paul James who became the first player to reach 150 appearances for the region.
It was on a knife edge as both sides probed for an opening without any success as the clock ticked down, but O’Connor had more success in the 70th minute, his penalty after the Ospreys chasers were in front of the kicker putting Ulster one point ahead.
Ulster then showed great patience to hold possession and move the ball closer to the posts, going through 11 phases to tee up O’Connor for a drop goal opportunity but he pulled his effort to the right.
The Ospreys then looked to work themselves into a similar position, looking for the three points that would have surely won the game, but they lacked control at the vital moment, Lee Byrne knocking on and the game was gone, Ulster seeing out the final minute without concern.