Spirited Ulster in late, late show as the Ospreys are left grounded
Ulster 8 Ospreys 0
At times this season when their defence has struggled, the old adage that Ulster had shipped a cricket score was a frequent refrain around Kingspan Stadium. Last night though, for the vast majority of their win over Ospreys, they led by a football score.
After John Cooney kicked them into a 3-0 advantage with just seven minutes gone, the game somehow stayed that way until Jacob Stockdale sealed the deal with only a few seconds remaining.
Even had the game yielded only a single penalty, the contest wouldn't have been the dour matter the score would have suggested, and there were times when the hosts played some of their most enterprising rugby of what has been, to be kind, an up and down campaign.
They pinned their opponents back in their own half for massive portions of the contest, indeed it was a rarity to see Ospreys break forward into Ulster territory, with their pack backing up their big performance in Edinburgh a week prior.
With Jean Deysel, Iain Henderson, Rory Best and man of the match Matty Rea all hugely prominent throughout, this was a win that emptied the tank of many, even if it could, and should, have been won much earlier.
Having turned down a host of kickable penalties, it was hard to remember a contest that Ulster failed to cross the whitewash from so many promising positions. The stats in the end read 80% territory for those 80 minutes.
And while nerves hung in the air as Ospreys remained within touching distance, the relief as Stockdale broke into the clear was equally palpable.
It ensured Jono Gibbes' side would live to fight another day in the Guinness PRO14's play-off race, while crucially providing some belated breathing space in the table.
Now just four points back of Edinburgh in the final play-off spot, that number could swell further today with Richard Cockerill's men hosting a Scarlets side keeping their powder dry for next week's Champions Cup semi with Leinster.
But the pressure is all on Benetton, who must take something from their own meeting with Leinster today to retain hopes of pipping Ulster to a spot in the Champions Cup play-off game.
Building on last week's big win, Ulster's start was strong, even if nobody could have guessed Cooney's early penalty would provide the only scoring for so long. The first of a host of try opportunities came soon after.
With Deysel to the fore again early on, it was the former Springbok who almost created the game's first score, but Stockdale was hauled down just short of the line. The Six Nations player of the tournament gave Ulster a real fright when he stayed down clutching his lower leg, but to mass relief around Kingspan Stadium, the winger was fine to carry on after treatment.
There was still a chance for Ulster when the ball was recycled, but the pass for Kieran Treadwell gave the lock little chance.
And for all of Ulster's territory in the first quarter, Ospreys had a golden chance to draw level when Alun Wyn Jones, unusually with a six on his back, won a breakdown turnover from Darren Cave.
Lions fly-half Dan Biggar, though, failed to connect with his kick.
There was to be a further let-off when, after Ulster played with plenty of enterprise, it was Ospreys first across the whitewash only for the TMO to intervene having spotted a neck roll from Jones on Henderson.
Matters so nearly swung on a sixpence when Ulster seemed certain to score up the other end after a big carry from Rea but the finger tips of Tom Habberfield stopped him just short of the line.
With half-time fast approaching, Ulster tried to force a deserved score before the turn, but when the ball squeaked out of the maul a big chance went begging.
The exasperated expression of Jono Gibbes on the big screen said it all. For all intents and purposes his side had put together a fine 40 minutes of rugby but for an occasional lack of patience seeing some forced offloads in key moments.
With the intensity of the game continuing into the second-half, there were tired legs early, seeing Ulster go to the bench, Luke Marshall replacing the again impressive Cave.
A five metre scrum, earned when Louis Ludik chased down a Charles Piutau grubber, seemed sure to finally see a try scored but the All Black's offload flew into touch rather than the waiting arms of Stockdale.
With the clock ticking ever onwards, and a win the ultimate priority, Ulster still resisted the temptation to build a winning margin from the tee.
Even down to 14 after wing Jeff Hasler was shown a yellow card, Ospreys still denied their hosts any reward for their efforts, another five metre scrum failing to yield a try when Ulster couldn't make the extra man count out wide.
With Ospreys' Canadian wing stood on the sideline waiting his return, and the game now over an hour without a point scored, it was Ulster's turn to have their attempts to wake the scoreboard operator thwarted by the TMO.
A clever chip through by Marshall saw replacement Nick Timoney use all his sevens speed down the left touchline but he was adjudged to have knocked on as he, ball and opposing centre slid across the whitewash in a tangle.
As the game entered its final 10 minutes, Ospreys belatedly put some phases together, looking for a penalty that could have tied the game and left Ulster's 6-6 draw with Leinster here 12 years ago feeling like it had been a high-scoring affair.
After Luke Marshall came up and thumped the intimidating presence of Alun Wyn Jones, Ospreys were driven backwards and Biggar's pass was scooped by Stockdale. The wing, who sealed Ireland's Six Nations win over Wales in similar fashion, wasn't going to be caught as soon as he broke through Hassler.
It had taken all night, but the win was secure.
ULSTER: Charles Piutau; Louis Ludik, Darren Cave (Luke Marshall 49), Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny McPhillips (David Shanahan 31), John Cooney; (1-8) Callum Black (Andrew Warwick 55), Rory Best (Rob Herring 69), Ross Kane (Tom O'Toole 77); Kieran Treadwell (Alan O'Connor 52), Iain Henderson, Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy (Nick Timoney 65), Jean Deysel.
Sub not used: Tommy Bowe.
OSPREYS: Dan Evans; Jeff Hassler, Kieron Fonotia, Owen Watkin, Hanno Dirksen (Sam Davies 69); Dan Biggar, Tom Habberfield; (1-8) Nicky Smith (Rhodri Jones 60), Scott Otten (Ifan Phillips 19), Dmitri Arhip (Ma'afu Fia 61); Bradley Davies, Adam Beard (Guy Mercer 69); Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Cross, James King.
Subs not used: Lloyd Ashley, Matthew Aubrey, James Hook.
Yellow card: Jeff Hassler (58)
Man of the Match: Matthew Rea (Ulster)
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)