Ulstermen dig deep to end torrid season on a Euro high
Ulster 35-17 Ospreys
For all that has gone on in Ulster Rugby's season, it speaks volumes that finishing where they started felt like such an achievement.
Two coaches and a host of long-serving players were lost along the way, and the team that took the field for the final game bore little resemblance to how it was originally intended, but at the end of a year that was endured rather than enjoyed, the province maintained their position in the Champions Cup for next season with a comeback win over Ospresys in Kingspan Stadium.
Having never spent a season dining away from Europe's top table, Ulster's fourth place finish in Conference B had left them needing to beat the Welsh region in a first ever PRO14 Champions Cup play-off to avoid a season in the Challenge Cup and, despite falling into an early deficit, they did the required, to the tune of four tries to three.
Having lost Rory Best to injury in training during the week, to go along with Jared Payne, Marcell Coetzee Jean Deysel and Iain Henderson over the season, Ulster's cause was knocked further when Charles Piutau and Ross Kane pulled out of the side after the warm-up.
The loss of the Kiwi full-back, leaving the side with a fully Irish-qualified match-day squad, brought Craig Gilroy into the starting side and the Irish wing responded with a brace of scores.
Kieran Treadwell and Jacob Stockdale were the others to cross for Jonno Gibbes' side, but there were frayed nerves throughout the first hour of the contest.
With many fans having chosen to stay away - the 7,000 crowd was Ulster's lowest for years - there was an almost eerie atmosphere to start but, after looking shaky in the first half an hour, Ulster finished much the stronger.
With five minutes on the clock, Ospreys had the first chance for points when Ulster were caught offside but Dan Biggar's penalty came back off the post into the waiting arms of Luke Marshall.
In stark contrast to the last meeting between these two sides, the visitors were applying all the pressure, a rare Ulster attack ending with a penalty for holding on after a good bust and offload from Stuart McCloskey.
It was only the briefest of spells in possession and only moments later, Ospreys got the return their start deserved when Alun Wyn Jones applied the finishing touch to a maul that had been stopped only just short of the Ulster line.
His fellow Lion Dan Biggar added the conversion, and Ulster were in an early hole after just 15 minutes.
The pattern of the game changed little but a big hit from Jacob Stockdale at least lifted the sparse crowd and John Cooney got Ulster on the board with a penalty when Ospreys transgressed at the breakdown.
Missing so many key men, made worse when Louis Ludik and Callum Black both departed in the first 25 minutes, Ulster had no rhythm to their game, relying heavily on the physicality of their centres to carry but with little to offer support when they did.
With at most one member of their proposed starting tight five, Ulster buckled at the next scrum but, somewhat remarkably, Biggar's effort came back off the post for a second time.
And it was thanks to those off target efforts that, somehow, Ulster led at the half.
The hosts had yet to be in the opposition 22 when Johnny McPhillips sent a penalty to the corner five minutes before the turn but, working the numbers well, Luke Marshall exploited the space in behind well with a measured grubber bounced up perfectly for Craig Gilroy to apply an acrobatic finish.
While Cooney didn't get the desired contact on the conversion, Ulster had a one-point advantage.
Ospreys tried to strike back in the moments before the break but good work at the breakdown from Rob Herring and Kieran Treadwell forced a turnover to send the players to the sheds.
If their lead felt fortunate at the start of the second-half, the hosts were in an even stronger position only minutes after the restart when, after Cooney intercepteda wayward pass on half-way, McPhillips kicked through and there was to be no catching Gilroy who got fingertips to the ball for the try.
Having not scored against Ospreys before in his career, the winger, not even down to start the game, had two in 42 minutes.
With Cooney adding the extras, it was a two-score lead.
Carrying with more purpose, and doing much better in contact, it was Ospreys turn to look loose, a keystone cops moment in their own in-goal area giving Ulster a five-metre scrum.
Cooney thought he had scored only for play to be called back after the ball touched referee Marius Mitrea, but it was only a delay with Kieran Treadwell, having one of his better games of the season, crashed between Bradley Davies and Jeff Hassler to squeeze over the line.
With a series of injuries, the game began to lose some momentum, which won't have worried Ulster unduly with a 15-point lead, but when play resumed a classy pass from James Hook set Hassler racing for the corner.
The Canadian ran over Stockdale and, despite some doubts from the TMO, dotted down before going into touch.
Given the way this season had went, there will still have been a few in the stadium expecting one last unwanted twist but a pair of Cooney penalties calmed any residual nerves before Stockdale - who else? - provided one final intercept try in a season full of them.
With two minutes to go, Biggar scored the game's last points, before again somehow striking the post with his conversion but the game, and a place in next season's Champions Cup, was already Ulster's.
Not a season anyone in BT6 will care to remember but, at the very least, at the very end, there was a sigh of relief.