Head coach Brian McLaughlin implemented four changes from the starters in last weekend's seven-point reversal in Cardiff, with perhaps the most notable amendment being the inclusion of Paul Marshall at scrum-half. This switch saw Ruan Pienaar relocate to out-half, and Ian Humphreys drop to the bench. The front row also had a different look, with Paddy McAllister and Andi Kyriacou taking over from Tom Court and Nigel Brady. Meanwhile, the back row welcomed the return to fitness of Pedrie Wannenburg, straight back in at number eight despite two impressive try-scoring performances from Robbie Diack during his compatriot's absence.
With an Ulster scrum on the Ospreys 10-metre line eventually successful at the third time of asking, the hosts put a series of good passes together and unleashed Nevin Spence into the visitors' '22' on four minutes. The Ospreys defence braced itself and used its numbers to withstand the powerful centre first on the left flank, then moments later on the right, and subsequently turned possession over and managed to clear. An Ospreys offside in the very next passage of play, however, gave Pienaar office to shoot for the posts from distance, but his kick dropped marginally wide.
The Ospreys looked slick and well-drilled as they mounted their first attack on the quarter-hour, and with Wannenburg sinbinned for blocking and failing to retreat at the concession of a penalty, his opposite number Joe Bearman capitalised on the advantage to ground a try after precise lineout organisation from the Ospreys. Dan Biggar added the extras for a score of Ulster 0 Ospreys 7 just before the end of the first quarter.
The game then cranked up a gear, with a strong Ulster rolling maul gaining a good 20 metres before standout work from both Marshall and Spence, playing on their respective trademarks of quick-wittedness and bravery, got the white jerseys back into the danger zone. The attack was blighted by referee Neil Hennessey's call for a forward pass, but Ulster soon had some recompense for their travails, courtesy of a sweetly-struck Pienaar penalty on the half-hour.
Another chance was not long in coming, with Marshall, Paddy Wallace and Wannenburg all linking up effectively on the left wing 90 seconds later to force a second penalty. Pienaar's kick dropped inches short of the crossbar, but an undeterred Ulster came at the Ospreys again, collecting the clearance and bursting menacingly down the left wing, the try-scoring opportunity only scuppered when Ian Whitten's final pass infield somehow fell into a pair of Welsh hands.
Again the Ospreys cleared their lines, and again Ulster thrust upfield without delay. This time their persistence paid off as, after several phases of play and even a Marshall-style tap-and-go from Wannenburg, the desperate Ospreys defence infringed once too often for Mr Hennessey's liking, and he awarded the penalty try. An intentional knock-on of the final pass just shy of the try-line by Biggar was the straw that broke the camel's back, and the fly-half's intervention saw him yellow-carded for good measure. Pienaar converted to cement a three-point lead at the break.
Half-Time Score Ulster 10 Ospreys 7
Despite their numerical disadvantage in Biggar's absence, the Ospreys started the second half with the greater attacking intent, but once Ulster had contained five minutes' worth of threat, a turnover in midfield allowed them to make their superiority count. Good pressure and recycling down the right flank got Ulster well inside the Welsh '22', and with bodies lining up on the overlap on the left wing, swift crossfield passing allowed Whitten to supply Wallace for a dive into the corner. The angle was too tight for Pienaar's conversion, but the lead was promising at Ulster 15 Ospreys 7.
The Ulstermen's next onslaught saw Lewis Stevenson and Dan Tuohy do all the groundwork, grinding out the yards and creating the space for John Afoa to propel his way through, halted only by a stubborn Welsh grip on his jersey. The Ospreys managed to turn over at the next phase, but with Ulster dominating now, a third try at this stage seemed a formality.
The Ospreys had other ideas, however, and refused to be swept away by the white-and-red tide, completely reversing the run of play in the last quarter-hour. The first to show was sprightly winger Willem Dirksen, whose 66th-minute dash eluded several tackles before Stefan Terblanche snuffed it out in timely fashion.
With McLaughlin ringing multiple personnel changes in the closing 10 minutes, Ulster's task was now containing the resurgent Ospreys, which they were able to do until the 79th minute, when winger Eli Walker was adjudged to have touched down just over the try-line after an impressive solo raid infield.
Biggar's conversion closed the gap to a solitary point, and Ulster hearts were in their mouths when the Ospreys burst down the right wing in the dying seconds, the speedy Dirksen instrumental again. With the clock at 80 minutes, Biggar kicked crossfield into the left-hand corner where several recipients were waiting, but fortune smiled on Ulster as the ball landed in Afoa's arms, and the prop gratefully punted into touch.
Full-Time Score Ulster 15 Ospreys 14
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Ospreys Score Card|