Belfast Telegraph

RaboDirect Pro12: Ulster's winning streak ends

By Niall Crozier

Ulster suffered their first defeat of the RaboDirect Pro12 series yesterday, going down 32-14 to Ospreys in Swansea.

They can have no complaints, for after a good opening quarter they were under pressure for most of the afternoon.

Trips to this particular Welsh venue have seldom been productive, a fact confirmed by only two Liberty Stadium wins from seven previous visits.

This was also the scene of Ulster's heaviest-ever league defeat, a 43-0 pasting in September 2008.

Most of that, however, was pre-Brian McLaughlin and yesterday morning the Ulster coach arrived in south Wales with a 50-50 - won one, lost one - Liberty Stadium record.

He and his players lacked nothing in terms of motivation, fuel having been added to their fire by wins for Munster, Connacht and Leinster against Cardiff Blues, NG Dragons and Scarlets respectively earlier in the weekend.

Both Ospreys and Ulster suffered late withdrawals with home hooker Scott Baldwin and guests' fly-half Ian Humphreys pulling out with Richard Hibbard and for Ulster Paddy Jackson deputising.

It did not take Jackson long to make his mark.

Pedrie Wannenburg's well-presented ball was passed quickly and accurately by scrum-half Paul Marshall to his young partner whose clever show and go saw him ghost through the hosts' defensive line before sprinting all the way home for a great solo try under the posts.

Jackson added the extras to his own touchdown and Ulster had less than four minutes gone.

A perfect start; Ulster were buzzing.

Little could anyone have imagined that another 73 minutes would elapse before they scored again.

The concession of a penalty from the restart ought to have seen their early lead trimmed, but what should have been a straightforward kick for Dan Biggar came back off a post.

Ulster were the better side early on, with centres Luke Marshall and Nevin Spence much involved, linking well with Jackson and threatening each time they did.

Biggar cut the arrears with a 13th minute penalty, but when Hibbard was yellow-carded at the end of a first quarter dominated by the guests, Ulster really ought to have cashed in.

But whereas the norm is for 15 men to lord it over 14, Ospreys bucked convention by asserting themselves afresh and forcing Ulster into errors. As a result, Biggar was able to land 27th and 29th minute penalties to nose them into a 9-7 lead during their hooker's absence.

After that they never looked back.

When Ulster infringed yet again, an anxious Henry called his men together to warn that referee Dudley Phillips was losing patience with them.

Yet another indiscretion saw Biggar - now firmly in the groove - kick his fourth penalty from five attempts, opening up a five-point lead as a match in which Ulster had played the better rugby early on began to ebb away alarmingly.

Another moment of magic by Jackson saw him find Gilroy with a precisely judged cross-kick and, had support for Dan Tuohy arrived a little more promptly, a try was on.

Instead, Ospreys escaped punishment, just as they did moments later when Henry spilled the ball close to the home line on the stroke of half-time.

The second half opened with a drop-goal attempt by Biggar sailing wide after Luke Marshall kicked away possession in the Ospreys 22.

It got worse, with Robbie Diack sin-binned for failing to release Biggar after tacking him and as the South African made his way to the line, the Ospreys out-half rubbed salt in his wounded pride by kicking the resultant penalty.

Trailing 15-7, Ulster were creaking on the rack.

Another attempted drop-goal was charged down by Henry, but when the Ospreys pack drove forward in a scrum close to the line Ulster won themselves a put-in at the re-set set piece.

What a baptism of fire for Nigel Brady as he took over from Andy Kyriacou.

Willie Faloon also entered the fray beneath the posts where twice Ulster failed to stay down as the screw on them tightened.

Three penalties under the crossbar. On the fourth occasion, with the Ulster front row upright, the inevitable happened - penalty try.

Biggar added the goal points which made it 22-7 at the start of the final quarter, by which stage Ulster were reduced to thinking only about damage limitation.

As things disintegrated further, Ospreys wing Richard Fussell accepted a 72nd minute gift try from a defence which by that stage was in disarray. Matt Morgan, on for Biggar, converted to open up a 25-point gap.

To their credit, Ulster battled on despite knowing it was a lost cause and their consolation came with a 77th minute penalty try.

Not a good day.

Belfast Telegraph

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