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McCloskey paves way for Ulster win on his big night

Ospreys 0-8 Ulster

On the break: Stuart McCloskey goes on the run for Ulster
On the break: Stuart McCloskey goes on the run for Ulster
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

As he racked up a century of caps for Ulster, it seemed Stuart McCloskey was destined to be the only man both in the headlines and on the scoresheet.

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The burly centre bagged the game's only try against Ospreys in the second half, created by his own offload, and the 5-0 margin he forced was the only moment of note until John Cooney knocked over a penalty with the clock just turning red.

Oddly, last season's game between these two in the Guinness PRO14 also finished 8-0 - on that occasion the sole try scored by Jacob Stockdale - but with both sides trying to shake off rust after three weeks off, this encounter was one lacking in much attacking star quality.

Ulster had the benefit of an Irish international trio in the form of Cooney, Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy to call upon in between Six Nations duty, while Ospreys were denied their Welsh contingent currently preparing with Warren Gatland for next week's visit from England.

As such, Ulster were good value for their narrow victory and left a few tries out there. Ospreys in contrast looked unlikely to score, if not from the maul, in a game where attacking variety was in short supply.

While it was far from pretty, there is little doubting the win's significance in Ulster's battle to qualify for the Champions Cup.

Dragons were leading in Edinburgh at half-time but Ulster's fellow play-off chasers came back to win with a bonus point. But still, Dan McFarland's men leap-frogged both Scarlets and Benetton to take third place in the table ahead of that pair meeting in northern Italy this afternoon.

With Zebre, Dragons and Southern Kings, the latter and the former at home, the Six Nations window could yet be a fruitful one for the province looking to secure an all-important top-three spot.

It was the returning Henderson whose turnover gave Cooney a first chance at the posts, the scrum-half's effort drifting off target as the game neared the quarter-hour mark. Little did anyone know just how long we'd be waiting for those first points.

The former Connacht and Leinster man manufactured a second attempt off the tee soon after, his dummy creating the space to scythe through the defensive line and forcing a scrambling Ospreys defence into an error. TMO intervention, though, saw the penalty reversed.

Strong maul defence from the visitors kept the scores knotted at zero, while a scrum penalty completed the job for McFarland's men.

A missed lineout saw one opportunity go begging, while a good combination between Louis Ludik and Darren Cave ended only with Angus Kernohan knocking on McCloskey's pass as he searched for the line.

When McCloskey did likewise, Ulster had made only two handling errors in the first half but both had cost tries.

After the turn, neither side seemed to be looking after the ball and, indeed, when the first points finally came 47 minutes into the game it was off back-to-back turnovers.

On the occasion of his 100th Ulster cap, McCloskey made the telling break and produced a fine offload out to Pete Nelson. The Ulster full-back didn't quite have the gas to score, but when Cooney was quick to the ruck, McCloskey was on hand to provide the finish to the move he started, diving on a loose ball knocked forward by Luke Morgan.

When Cooney's conversion came back off the post, Ulster would have rather had the penalty try seemingly on offer before McCloskey alertly mopped up the situation.

Referee Quinton Immelman will have redeemed himself in the visitors' eyes when allowing a long period of advantage that allowed them to go back to the corner when Cooney's pass was picked off by Cory Allen and the Ospreys centre looked sure to take it the other way. Still, the attack came to nothing for Ulster when their maul was halted five metres out.

After a period just after the hour mark that must have pushed the world record for knock-ons in a three-minute spell, Ulster earned a penalty that looked kickable but went for the corner. A curious call in such a tight game, it felt that it may prove costly when Ulster were turned over on the opposition line to keep it a one-score game with a little over 10 minutes remaining.

And it would have done if not for yet more stout maul defence, a turnover from replacement prop Andy Warwick in the shadow of their own posts with five minutes to go proving the winning of the game.

In the last action, Cooney knocked over a penalty earned at scrum-time by Tom O'Toole to deny Ospreys a losing bonus.

OSPREYS: D Evans; H Dirksen, C Allen, T Thomas-Wheeler, L Morgan; S Davies (C), M Aubrey; J Lay, S Baldwin, T Botha; L Ashley, B Davies; O Cracknell, S Cross, J King

Replacements: S Otten (for Baldwin, 57), R Jenkins (for Lay, 57), M Fia (for Botha, 57), W Griffiths (for Ashley, 77), R McCusker (for B Davies, 53), R Morgan-Williams (for Aubrey, 77), L Price (for S Davies, 57), K Giles (for L Morgan, 63)

ULSTER: P Nelson; A Kernohan, D Cave, S McCloskey, L Ludik; M Lowry, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor (C), I Henderson; C Ross, J Murphy, N Timoney

Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick (for O'Sullivan, 72), T O'Toole (for Moore, 59), K Treadwell (for O'Connor, 59), S Reidy (for Ross, 58), D Shanahan, J Hume (for Lowry, 73), R Lyttle (for Kernohan, 72)

Man of the match: Stuart McCloskey (Ulster)

Referee: Quinton Immelman (SARU)

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