Kiss: Ulster simply failed to deliver
Ospreys 24 Ulster 10
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss has admitted his side were simply not good enough after defeat at the hands of Ospreys effectively ended their PRO12 play-off hopes on Saturday.
The province had made the last four of the domestic competition in five of the last six years, reaching a Heineken Cup final in the only season they missed out, but their campaign will end without playing a single knock-out game for the first time since 2010.
For all their struggles this season, a win in the Liberty Stadium on Saturday and they still would have been in the driving seat for fourth place, but they couldn't even muster a losing bonus point against a side who had lost four in a row.
Buoyed by a high error rate from their opponents, Ospreys started the game in a strong fashion and were good value for their 17-3 half-time lead.
While Ulster had all the possession and territory after the turn, it counted for little as they failed to muster a single score until all hope was already lost.
"Ultimately we just weren't good enough to do the job," bemoaned a dejected Kiss.
"Fair play to Ospreys, coming off four losses, they had to bounce back and they did.
"Frustrated and disappointed would be the two words to describe this right now.
"There's a lot of hurt in this dressing room." When falling to Munster last time out, a result that could have scuppered Ulster's play-off chances if not for Ospreys' own defeat at the hands of Cardiff, the province had actually started brightly only to be undone by their own mistakes.
This time, it was the opposition making all of the early ground.
When Iain Henderson gave away an early penalty, Ospreys went to the corner and, although the ball went loose, centre Ashley Beck reacted the quickest to scoop up possession and capitilise on Ulster confusion to send Tom Habberfield over in the corner.
The hosts could have had more over the course of the next half an hour, especially with Ulster's set-piece misfiring in such an alarming fashion, but it looked as if Kiss's side would be able to hold out until half-time after Paul Marshall, on as a sub for the injured Ruan Pienaar, saved a try with a crucial intercept.
However, when Tyler Ardron scored thanks to a brilliant break from Dan Evans to leave the score 17-3 at the break, it will have felt like a psychological hammer blow.
"We're very disappointed by not only the result but we gifted Ospreys a lot, particularly in that first-half," acknowledged Kiss.
"Fair play to them, they took advantage, especially that try right at the end (of the first-half) was a bit of a blow having had to defend our errors for long periods."
While Ulster were markedly better after the turn, they could not turn their opportunities into points despite a number of promising positions.
Having come on for the injured Stuart Olding, who had himself replaced the injured Stuart McCloskey only moments before, Jacob Stockdale looked lively and twice created real chances only for the finishing touch not to be applied.
And when substitute Brendon Leonard went over late for the Ospreys, the Welsh side even found themselves chasing a try bonus.
While that didn't come, and indeed Stockdale did eventually grab Ulster's only try of the day in the final minute, events in Galway ensured Ulster would almost certainly be on the outside looking in when semi-final weekend rolls around.
With Scarlets beating Connacht, the Llanelli outfit are guaranteed their spot in the last four with only an Ulster five-pointer, an Ospreys loss without a bonus point, and a 73-point swing in points difference enough this week.
Barring the almost impossible, it means Saturday's game with Leinster has little riding on it but pride and the desire to give a fitting farewell to the departing Pienaar.
Kiss admitted though, that the South African could have already played his last game in an Ulster jersey.
"Ruan had a back spasm as the game started and he said he'd ride it out but it took 20 minutes and it was gone," he said. "It'll be a wait and see."
OSPREYS: Evans; Giles, Fonotia, Beck, Habberfield; Biggar, Webb (c); Smith, Baldwin, Mujati, Davies, Ardron, Underhill, Tipuric, King
REPLACEMENTS: Otten, James (for Smith, 64), Jones (for Mujati, 55), Ashley (for Davies, 62), Baker (for Underhill, 66), Leonard (for Webb, 75), Davies (for Habberfield, 73), Matavesi (for Beck, 64)
ULSTER: Gilroy; Trimble (c), Marshall, McCloskey, Piutau; Jackson, Pienaar; Warwick, Best, Herbst, Treadwell, O'Connor, Henderson, Reidy, Diack
REPLACEMENTS: Herring (for Best, 64), Black (for Warwick, 54), Ah You (for Herbst, 44), Van der Merwe (for O'Connor, 77), Timoney (for Diack, 62), Marshall (for Pienaar, 21), Olding (for McCloksey, 52), Stockdale (for Olding, 53)
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU).