Ulster (3) 9
PEN: Paddy Jackson (3).
Ospreys (7) 7
TRY: Nicky Smith. CON: Dan Biggar

Report: Ian McAvoy, Neill Gordon

5 Games unbeaten, but Ulster have to play their first “Get Out of Jail Free” card of the season.

The Ospreys arrived and immediately picked up where they’d left off in the final few minutes in Dublin last week, with Ulster barely touching the ball before loosehead Nick Smith bundled his way through Robbie Diack from short range in the 6th minute. Diack having started at blindside following Iain Henderson injuring himself before kick off. Ulster never really got going in the first half despite having a fair amount of the ball. Some poor handling turning possession over to the Ospreys when we were just building up a nice head of steam. Paul Marshall, getting a start ahead of Ruan Pienaar, was putting in some varied and clever kicks throughout, although it would have been nice if he’d kept the ball in hand a bit more.

Jackson had a very makeable chance to cut the deficit halfway through the 1st half, but pushed it wide of the right upright, perhaps overcompensating for the couple he pulled wide last week against Glasgow. Ulster’s backline finally showed a glimmer of life with some slick hands that almost saw Darren Cave go in at the corner, but he just couldn’t take the final pass after Charles Piutau had done well to draw a couple of the Ospreys defenders. Paddy Jackson didn’t have to wait long for a chance to make amends for that initial miss, and finally got Ulster on the board on the half hour mark.

So despite having lots of possession, Ulster went into the break four points behind, with the Ospreys work at the breakdown causing Ulster problems. It’s been sung that “Everywhere we go, it’s the Ulster boys making all the noise”, but everywhere the Ulster players went last night they arrived to find Justin Tipuric was already there and was slowing the ball down in some way! It was lucky he was wearing a blue scrumcap as this was the easiest way to confirm there wasn’t two of him on the pitch. Tipuric ended up a deserving Man of the Match in my humble opinion.

So into the second half and it didn’t take long for Ulster to make it a one point game, with another Jackson penalty a few minutes in, after Josh Matavesi was penalised for a high tackle. Jackson had the chance to give Ulster the lead for the first time in the match following some excellent work by Rory Best on the deck. But as with his first kick of the night, he pushed it wide of the right upright again and the scores remained the same. His current kicking percentage is sitting around the 50% mark for the season and this will have to be addressed if Ulster are to be successful come the business end.

And that threatened to be that. Ulster had a lot of possession without ever really looking like scoring due to some fantastic Ospreys defence, Alan Wyn Jones, so often Ulster’s nemesis, was again proving his disruptive self in the maul. The Ospreys hit Ulster on the break a couple of times, with Jared Payne and the impressive Louis Ludik having to make wonderful last ditch, try saving tackles. Dan Biggar pulled a drop kick wide, under pressure from Pienaar, as he looked to force Ulster to score a try to win the game.

And so, with the minutes ticking away and Ravenhill getting nervous, Ulster were still trying to get out of their own half to make one last attempt to snatch the victory they probably just deserved on the balance of play. An inch perfect penalty to touch, taken quickly by Pienaar, put Ulster back on the attack with a lineout at the Ospreys 22. A couple of phases later and Ulster got the penalty they were desperate for, right in front of the Ospreys’ posts. The Ospreys’ replacement backrow lazily failing to roll away at the breakdown. Jackson made no mistake and Ulster finally took the lead with 78 mins 56 secs on the clock, and escaped with the win. Certainly more like the tough contest some had predicted, as opposed to just a good workout!!

In what wasn’t the greatest advert for running rugby between two of the top sides in the Pro 12, Ulster came away with the narrowest of victories to keep their 100% start to the season intact and see them top the table. Ulster, much like the crowd, never really got going on Saturday evening but a win is a win and hopefully the coaching team can address the issues and have us firing on all four with a big game against Connacht before a trip to France to start our European campaign.

Ulster: Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Louis Ludik, Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall, Kyle McCall, Rory Best, Rodney Ah You, Alan O’Connor, Franco vd Merwe, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy, Roger Wilson. Replacements: John Andrew, Callum Black, Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Robbie Diack, Ruan Pienaar, Brett Herron, Tommy Bowe.

Photos: Ian Humes