Four changes implemented by Head Coach Mark Anscombe had seen Declan Fitzpatrick replace John Afoa at tighthead and Mike McComish take over from Robbie Diack in the back row. Meanwhile, behind the scrum, O'Connor and Darren Cave - both of whom had come on during the 18 - 10 defeat of Glasgow Warriors - got their first starts of the season at out-half and centre respectively, with Jackson dropping to the bench and Chris Farrell not included in the 23. The Ulster cause was also suitably buoyed by the inclusion of the fit-again Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble among the replacements.
Ulster started ambitiously, clearly undaunted by their opponents' status as Pro 12 title holders, with Cave and Marshall orchestrating possession in midfield, and Jared Payne only narrowly failing to find Craig Gilroy with a chip towards the line in the fourth minute. An outstanding long-distance kick from hand by O'Connor four minutes later threatened to put the Ospreys under more severe pressure, but over-complication from Ulster after winning the line-out led to the knock-on and the surrender of possession.
Indiscipline from the visitors then saw the concession of three consecutive penalties, but a lack of penetration from the Ospreys meant little ground and no points were gained from their 10-minute spell of possession, and good sweeping-up from McComish allowed O'Connor to clear his lines on 20 minutes. The outside-half then had the opportunity to open the Ulster account moments later with an acutely-angled penalty from the right wing, but narrowly missed to the right of the posts.
Ospreys wasted no time from the restart, South African-born Hanno Dirksen picking up a loose ball outside the Ulster '22' and deftly eluding Cave, Payne and Michael Heaney to touch down on 24 minutes. Welsh Number 10 Matthew Morgan added the extras to the winger's try, and the score sat at Ospreys 7 Ulster 0.
Hands in the ruck from Justin Tiparic on the half-hour gave O'Connor the chance to atone for his earlier miss, this time from a central position on the half-way line, and there was no mistake from the Ulster Number 10 as he flighted the kick perfectly to reduce the gap to four points.
The Ospreys' performance, however, was ever-improving as the half progressed, and only bullish defending by Ulster, with Sean Doyle and Nick Williams particularly brawny in their tackling, kept multiple raids at bay. The pressure finally broke on 38 minutes with an Ospreys infringement just inside Ulster territory, and, while O'Connor's long-range attempt lacked both the requisite distance and accuracy, it ensured the half ended at the right end as far as Ulster were concerned, and meant they went off at the break a mere four points adrift.
Half-Time Score Ospreys 7 Ulster 3
With the Ulster side reinforced by the entry of Tom Court and Paul Marshall at half-time, an early illegal tackle by James King on the replacement scrum-half as he fished the ball out of a maul gave O'Connor office to kick for three more points from 45 metres. However the chance went begging, and a forward pass from Marshall to Williams straight from the restart handed the initiative back to the incumbent Rabo Direct champions.
Their period of possession was short-lived, however, as try-scorer Dirksen knocked on, but a collapse on the Ulster side in the resulting scrum handed Morgan an elementary penalty in front of the posts, which he duly dispatched to inch his side seven points in front once more. A second penalty was swift to follow, with Doyle pulled up for an indiscretion in the tackle this time, and Morgan again did the needful to make it Ospreys 13 Ulster 3 on 52 minutes.
Multiple changes at this stage brought Ferris, Trimble and Jackson into the fray, and the latter was called into action straight away, neatly slotting over a testing 45-metre penalty after an Ospreys infringement at the scrum. Trimble's first contribution was less positive, however, as he was penalised for a collision with Dirksen in mid-air, and the Ireland international was relieved to see Morgan's effort loop wise on this occasion.
With Ulster sensing that the game was by no means beyond them, smart work from the front five on 65 minutes saw the put-in at the scrum reversed in their favour, and another penalty rapidly followed. Jackson kept his composure to make it two from two, and the Ospreys, fully aware of the danger, launched their most sustained assault of the half from the restart. Ulster defended superbly to keep them at bay, eventually forcing replacement out-half Dan Biggar to opt for an unsuccessful drop-goal attempt.
The game's turning point came with the clock at 73 minutes. Ulster stormed forward with a superb passage of play spearheaded by replacement lock Neil McComb, and which culminated with John Afoa grounding the ball centimetres shy of the line under a hail of tackles, before the alert Paul Marshall picked up and dived over the mound of bodies to score the try. Jackson converted to leave the Ospreys requiring a penalty for a draw at Ospreys 13 Ulster 16.
Excellent ball retention from Ulster kept play deep in Ospreys territory from the restart, and despite the hosts managing to win possession back with thirty seconds remaining, the white Ulster wall hemmed them well inside their '22' until a loose ball presented itself to Marshall, who gladly punted it high into the stands of the Liberty Stadium. Two consecutive wins, then, from two potential banana skins for Ulster, and an ideal precursor to next Friday's first interprovincial clash of the season, against Munster at Ravenhill.
Full-Time Score Ospreys 13 Ulster 16
(15 - 9) R Fussell; H Dirksen, A Bishop, A Beck, T Isaacs; M Morgan, R Webb
(1 - 8) R Bevington, R Hibbard, A Jarvis, I Gough, A W Jones (c), J King, J Tipuric, J Thomas
Replacements: S Baldwin, D Jones, J Rees, G Stowers, J Bearman, K Fotuali'i, D Biggar, T Grabham
(15 - 8) J Payne; C Gilroy, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen; N O'Connor, M Heaney
(1 - 8) C Black, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (c), L Stevenson, M McComish, S Doyle, N Williams
Replacements: N Brady, T Court, J Afoa, N McComb, S Ferris, P Marshall, P Jackson, A Trimble
|Ospreys Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|