Ospreys 19 Ulster 13
Ulster failed to back up their impressive United Rugby Championship win over the competition’s perennial champions Leinster as they were beaten 19-13 by the Ospreys in Swansea.
Dan McFarland’s side played almost all the rugby, particularly in the first half, but in response the Ospreys were belligerent and never took a backward step.
Ulster had 60 and 64 per cent of possession and territory respectively, but their scrum struggled and the Ospreys ramped up their set-piece dominance after the break.
The home side made a mammoth 246 of 259 tackles, summing up their commitment.
Ulster’s unusual change shirt was of a mustard colour and their start was hot as they dominated possession and looked to run the Ospreys off their feet.
There was a lovely pass out of contact from Stuart McCloskey and while some of Billy Burns’s kicking from hand was poor, Ulster were full of confidence.
They did turn the ball over when a try looked certain, Ospreys fullback Max Nagy pulling off a fine cover tackle and jackal to allow his team to clear.
Ulster’s belief, boosted by their Leinster win, was clear as they turned down kickable penalties in favour of looking for a try.
It soon arrived, but in bizarre fashion when referee Sam Grove-White awarded a penalty try and yellow-carded Ospreys wing Luke Morgan after he was judged to have deliberately knocked on a pass from David McCann.
The Swansea crowd roared sarcastically when Grove-White awarded the home side a penalty and Stephen Myler knocked over the kick, but Ospreys centre Owen Watkin was then pinged for not rolling away from a ruck. John Cooney didn’t miss the kick.
Ulster’s Wales hooker Bradley Roberts, who made a shock Test debut against South Africa in the autumn, had a lively first half-hour.
Roberts will have to leave Ulster and move to one of Wales’ four regions at the end of the season if he wants to continue his international career and seemed keen to make a point. Watching Wales head coach Wayne Pivac would surely have been impressed.
Ospreys captain Rhys Webb took a quick tap, but his team lost Nagy – who had made a promising start – to what looked like a shoulder injury. Wales international Gareth Anscombe came on for his first appearance since the autumn Tests in his less-favoured fullback position.
Nagy had been a late replacement for Dan Evans who had suffered a hip injury, but after he left the field, the Ospreys hit back. Their forwards did the hard work and impressive number eight Morgan Morris ran a lovely line from a short Webb pass to crash over. Myler’s conversion made it 10-10.
Ulster’s disappointment at conceding was made worse by seeing Roberts limp off injured and Myler’s second penalty saw Toby Booth’s side somehow go to the break ahead.
Ulster would have been scratching their heads at how they turned around behind but they went straight on the attack after Burns resumed proceedings.
But Eric O’Sullivan was penalised for pulling down a scrum and it again let Ospreys off the hook. O’Sullivan was immediately removed for returning British & Irish Lion Jack McGrath.
Ospreys flanker Jac Morgan, like Morris, had a superb game. His breakdown work, tackling and work rate were all excellent, but he was penalised for a high tackle and Cooney tied the game.
Ospreys were under the pump, but their tackle count and resilience kept them in it. Morris produced a superb breakdown turnover. It allowed Myler to kick a third penalty of the afternoon and set-up an intriguing final quarter.
Ospreys have won the most scrum penalties in the United Rugby Championship this season and their set-piece went well again. They won two crucial scrum penalties, the second of which gave Myler a 66th-minute shot at goal.
The veteran outhalf was successful as the Ospreys followed the game plan that allowed them to beat Munster against more Irish opposition.
In the final 10 minutes, Roberts’s replacement Tom Stewart was forced off injured. It meant loosehead O’Sullivan returned to the field as a makeshift hooker. Live scrummaging continued with O’Sullivan insisting he was able to hook. It didn’t show as Ulster were immediately free-kicked.
In fairness to Ulster, they could have easily claimed O’Sullivan was un