Ospreys 24-10 Ulster: PRO12 play-off hopes almost over after Liberty Stadium loss
Ulster's play-off hopes are almost over after losing 24-10 to Ospreys in Liberty Stadium today.
The Ospreys ended a run of four straight defeats to put themselves in a good position to reach the Guinness PRO12 semi-finals at the expense of fellow play-off contenders Ulster.
Tries in the first half from Tom Habberfield and Tyler Ardron and a late Brendon Leonard effort were enough to give the Welsh region victory, Dan Biggar converting all three tries and kicking a penalty.
The Ospreys were full value for their 17-3 interval advantage. And although they had to defend for long periods after the break, they were deserved 24-10 winners. Jacob Stockdale got an Ulster consolation, with Paddy Jackson booting the conversion to an earlier penalty, but it was too little, too late.
It means the Ospreys jumped into third place above the Scarlets, prior to their Welsh rivals' meeting with Connacht on Saturday evening.
It had been a perfect start for the Ospreys, Ashley Beck's superb pass out of the tackle finding Habberfield, who crossed in the corner - a fine finish from a man used to playing scrum-half. Biggar adding the extras for a 7-0 lead.
Jackson then exchanged penalties with British and Irish Lions fly-half Biggar, but a kicking battle dominated the game with neither team willing to take too many risks. Ospreys livewire Rhys Webb was the one exception.
Ulster were dealt a cruel blow when they lost Ruan Pienaar to injury, with Paul Marshall replacing the South African.
Jackson and Biggar exchanged kicks to make it 10-3 to the Ospreys.
The home side were dominant and their second try was an absolute peach. Man of the match Dan Evans fielded a Jackson clearance kick, the full-back running the ball back with intent and scorching clear.
Evans linked with Habberfield, who passed to Ardron and he had a simple finish under the posts. Biggar added the extras for a 17-3 lead the Ospreys fully deserved.
Ulster's plight at the start of the second period continued. Stuart McCloskey's clean break saw the ball knocked on and, immediately after he left the field, the centre's replacement Stuart Olding suffered what looked like a recurrence of his previous knee injuries and was taken from the field.
The setbacks seemed to galvanise Ulster, and they camped themselves in the Ospreys' 22 by dominating possession.
Jackson was constantly involved, but he could not help his team find a try as England tourist Sam Underhill and Habberfield stood out in defence for the home side.
It meant Ulster had to chase the game in the final quarter and, although they created three or four half-chances, the final pass would not stick. Charles Piutau knocked on close to the line and Stockdale kicked the ball dead when it looked easier to score.
That summed up Ulster's day to forget, and even a final flourish which saw both Leonard and Stockdale cross for tries failed to influence the final result.
Entering the game in fifth place in the PRO12, a win would have put the Ulster in the driving seat for a semi-final place but they trailed from start to finish in Wales.
After this result, if Scarlets beat Connacht on Saturday night, Ulster would be all but mathematically out of contention.Tweets by UlsterRugby
Ospreys: Dan Evans; Keelan Giles, Kieron Fonotia, Ashley Beck, Tom Habberfield, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb (Capt); Nicky Smith, Scott Baldwin, Brian Mujati, Bradley Davies, Tyler Ardron, Sam Underhill, Justin Tipuric, James King.
Replacements: Scott Otten, Paul James, Rhodri Jones, Lloyd Ashley, Dan Baker, Brendon Leonard, Sam Davies, Josh Matavesi.
Ulster: C Gilroy, A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Piutau, P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best, W Herbst, K Treadwell, A O'Connor, I Henderson, S Reidy, R Diack.
Replacements: R Herring, C Black, R Ah You, F van der Merwe, N Timoney, P Marshall, S Olding, J Stockdale.
We can upset the title odds, says Stuart McCloskey
By Jonathan Bradley
So long has it been since Ulster last endured a season without a single knockout game, Stuart McCloskey was still a pupil at Bangor Grammar.
With a run of five PRO12 play-off spots in six years, and the lone blip coming in the campaign that brought a trip to the Heineken Cup final, 2010 was the last time that the province failed to reach the sharp end of either competition.
That will be the reality, however, should they lose to Ospreys today (3pm, Liberty Stadium), a result that would almost certainly consign them to fifth place in the league, and McCloskey did not mince his words when discussing the prospect.
"The season would have to be viewed as a disappointment if we don't get into the top four," the fit-again centre said bluntly.
"I think there's too much quality here for us to be missing out on the top four.
"There's a lot of pressure and guys want to do well. We have put a lot of hard work in this year and we do not want that to go for nothing.
"We put in a good performance against Munster last time but didn't come away with the result and if we do that this week then it's over.
"We need the performance and the result. Everyone here knows that.
"There is emotion to that but you have to keep it under check."
If the worst were to happen today in Swansea, it would compound the feelings of frustration from what has already been a maddeningly inconsistent campaign.
Despite having an undeniably talented group of players, the province haven't hit the required collective heights with any regularity whatsoever this season.
Having shown what they are capable of when beating the likes of Champions Cup finalists Clermont by five tries at home, it has been the inability to reproduce such quality performances on a consistent basis that has left Les Kiss' side in a scramble just to make the league's top four.
"We need to be better throughout the whole year to avoid being in this position," said McCloskey.
"We know as a squad that we do have the quality there, we've shown that with the performances like the ones against Clermont.
"It's frustrating. Nobody plays well every week but sometimes it feels like if we don't put in a performance we don't win. Sometimes you have to win ugly.
"We're still quite young as a squad and we have to keep learning how to do that.
"It's something you expect from teams like Saracens.
"You watch them so many times and are left thinking, 'how did they win that game?'
"That comes with experience. We need to start doing it to keep doing it.
"Munster are the prime example, nobody expected what they are doing this year after last season but they got on a roll and kept going."
As such, if Ulster can force their way into the play-offs, McCloskey sees no reason why they can't upset the odds and be the ones celebrating with the title in the Aviva Stadium come May 27.
"If we put in two good performances over the next two weeks then you never know," he said.
"Maybe we sneak under the radar a bit, not playing our best rugby, get a few wins and win it.
"Clermont are in the final in Europe, (beating them) shows the quality is here.
"We can beat any team in this league but we need to show up and put it out there."
As such, there is little point looking beyond the matter at hand and the Ospreys.
With Steve Tandy's men having looked a cert for the play-offs for much of the season, they have again lost form at precisely the wrong time, losing four in a row in all competitions.
Indeed, Ulster's play-off prospects would have looked decidedly more remote had the Welsh side managed to achieve the seemingly straightforward and beat Italian side Treviso a few weeks ago.
And while the visitor's record against Ospreys provides further reason for hope, including a commandingly comfortable win there in the final round of last season, McCloskey believes Ulster need a performance to rank right up there with the best of the year.
"They're a team full of quality," he said.
"You look at the players Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones, even though he's injured, all Lions.
"Teams go through (bad patches), we did around Christmas.
"A good team like that, at home, are always hard to beat.
"It won't be the same as last year.
"They weren't playing for anything then.
"They'll be a different side this time, one who's not already off for the summer.
"We have to go out there and put in one of the best performances of the year."
If not, McCloskey is all too aware of the consequences.