It was a tale of late woe in Parma on Thursday as Zebre claimed a win with the final play of the game to break Ospreys hearts.
The region had travelled to northern Italy in pursuit of a bonus point win, but left with just a losing bonus, leaving their play-off hopes hanging by the thinnest of threads.
Zebre got the game underway in glorious May sunshine, the temperature still well into the twenties despite the early evening kick-off in Parma.
It was the Italians who had the first opportunity, Luiciano Orquera with a penalty from the 10m line to the right just three minutes in after an obstruction from Justin Tipuric, but his kick was just off target.
An offside against Ashley Beck five metres or so further forward gave Zebre another opportunity five minutes later. This time Orquera’s radar was on and he was able to give the hosts a three point lead.
The Ospreys found themselves further behind just a few minutes later after the jinking feet of Orquera allowed him to to dance through a gap in the defence before sending a long pass out to the wing where Giovanbattista Vendittti collected and raced over to score. The conversion from Orquera was good and Zebre led by 10.
With 18 minutes gone, on just about his team’s first venture into opposition territory, Dan Biggar got the Ospreys on the scoreboard with a kick from the left after Aisea Natoga’s good chase of Tom Habberfield’s box kick resulted in a penalty.
The score seemed to lift the Ospreys and their best move of the game saw Andrew Bishop and Sam Davies making good ground up the right before, eventually, Beck was stopped short on the opposite side. As the Ospreys looked to go again, Zebre offended on the floor and Biggar duly added his second penalty of the game.
Orquera’s second successful penalty, after Bishop was guilty of not rolling away, took Zebre seven clear again on 29 minutes.
The Ospreys were finding it difficult to get any real rhythm to their game at this stage but another penalty, for collapsing the maul, gave Biggar another shot at goal, but he pulled it slightly to the left and the score remained at 13-6.
Powerful running from Hanno Dirksen and Dan Baker gave the Ospreys some go forward as they threatened the Zebre line but the home defence held firm, eventually winning a penalty close to their own line for not releasing.
Zebre stretched their lead to 10 points with the final kick of the half, Orquera again on target after the scrum went down on the Ospreys 10m line with the visitors ruled at fault.
HALF-TIME: ZEBRE 16 OSPREYS 6
The Ospreys needed a strong start to the second half and that was exactly what they got, scoring their first try of the game inside 40 seconds. It was created by Baker, fresh from signing his new contract, who went on a devastating run from half way, combining power and a very subtle sidestep to take his team into the Zebre 22. He offloaded to Justin Tipuric, who had a simple trot under the posts to give Biggar the simplest of conversions.
A tremendous break from Hanno Dirksen, well inside his own half, saw him beating a number of defenders as he carried into the Zebre 22. His pass to Biggar was intercepted by the hand of Kameii Ratuvou, in what looked like a deliberate knock-on, but after the incident was referred upstairs it was ruled accidental with the scrum going to the Ospreys. Zebre put the set-piece under pressure, eventually forcing a knock-on from Baker, which allowed the hosts to clear.
The second try came in the 53rd minute through Ashley Beck, with the score confirmed by the TMO after an initial burst through the middle by Bishop. Biggar’s conversion took the score to 20-16 in the visitors favour.
It was the Ospreys who were on top now, looking for tries, and with the penalty count mounting up against Zebre, a team warning was issued with 15 minutes remaining.
Bishop, Biggar and Habberfield were all held up on the line within the same move as the Ospreys kept the pressure up, and they were duly rewarded when skipper Alun Wyn Jones stretched over the line to score. Biggar converted.
The Ospreys had a little over 13 minutes to get the crucial fourth try, but they found themselves back under their posts just two minutes, poor defending allowing former All Black scrum half Brendon Leonard acres of space to race over between the sticks. Tommaso Iannone converted and the scoreboard read 23-27.
The game was getting increasingly frantic as game entered the last five minutes, and Aisea Natoga just failed to get away from his man with the line beckoning, before Zebre were reduced to 14 for the final four minutes after number eight Samuela Vunisa was yellow carded for cynically interfering when in an offside position.
As much as the visitors pushed they were unable to find a way through for the fourth try and as Zebre rallied at the death, the numbers were evened up as Alun Wyn Jones found himself joining Vunisa on the side after he was ruled to have come in from the side.
With the scent of victory in their nose, the hosts laid siege to the line and with time up Guglielmo Palazzani was able to reach over and score the winning try, Iannone bringing the game to a close with a conversion to seal a win that moves Zebre above Treviso as they fight for a place in the new European Rugby Champions Cup. For the Ospreys, it is a case of wait and see as Ulster face Leinster on Friday night.