A late Paddy Jackson penalty helped Ulster continue their winning start to the PRO12 season with a 9-7 victory over the Ospreys on Saturday.
This was as turgid game as you will see and had little to commend it, aside from a mammoth defensive effort from the Welsh visitors.
The Ospreys took an early lead through a try from loosehead Nicky Smith, Dan Biggar converting, but just couldn’t kick on from an excellent position.
While always looking slick with ball in hand, the Welsh region struggled to translate possession into points and paid the ultimate price for their profligacy.
For their part, Ulster looked sluggish and predictable on the ball, rarely threatening the Ospreys defence with their attack. All their points came through Irish fly-half Paddy Jackson, who had a mixed performance despite being named man-of-the-match.
The Ospreys looked destined to win right until the last few minutes when they conceded a needless penalty to let Ulster steal it at the death. They will kick themselves for failing to make their advantage count, but at least have the consolation of a losing bonus point.
It was all Ospreys early on and the Welsh region got its due reward on six minutes when prop Smith bulldozed over for a deserved early try, converted by Biggar. The Welsh region dominated the early stages, with the home side struggling to get hands on the ball.
It was a frustrating opening for the league pace-setters and their unease wasn’t helped on 24 minutes when Jackson missed a relatively easy kick with a horrible slice. But the Irish fly-half got over his uncharacteristic jitters on 29 minutes when he slotted a penalty from a similar position to make it 7-3. The Belfast side got into it a bit more in the next few minutes and were getting decent traction from their rolling maul.
The Ospreys defended it well, though, and always looked dangerous on the counter attack; especially with Biggar’s slick handling in midfield. Ulster continued to threaten, but their patterns looked way too telegraphed and the Ospreys defence was rarely threatened in a meaningful way. When the referee ended a bleak first half, there was a palpable relief among the spectators.
Jackson reduced the deficit to a point at the beginning of the second-half with another penalty and the Ravenhill faithful were hopeful the Irish club would kick on from there.
Ulster’s 10 had a terrific chance to extend his side’s lead a few minutes later, but again he was off-target with the kick. At last, the hosts seem to have momentum, though, as they kept the visitors on the back foot with a series of attacks. The Ospreys fringe defence remained very aggressive, however, with skipper Alun Wyn Jones continually shutting down Ulster’s attacks.
When Ruan Pienaar entered the fray on 55 minutes, the Irish province was badly in need of a spark. When fellow star Tommy Bowe joined him a few minutes later, the hitherto ponderous Ulster backline had taken on a different complexion.
For all that, the game never really exploded into life and while the defending was exemplary, both sides spilled way too much ball for their own good.
With the game set to end with a whimper, the misfiring hosts were thrown an unlikely lifeline when Ospreys replacement Olly Cracknell was penalised for finding himself in an obstructive position. With barely two minutes left on the clock, Jackson stepped up to nail the winning penalty and get his side out of jail in the process.
Pens: Jackson 3
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Darren Cave, 11 Louis Ludik, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 A O’Connor, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Rory Best, 1 Kyle McCall
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Callum Black, 18 Ross Kane, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Clive Ross, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Brett Herron, 23 Tommy Bowe
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Jeff Hassler, 13 Ben John, 12 Josh Matavesi, 11 Eli Walker, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Dan Baker, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 James King, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Nicky Smith
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Paul James, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Rory Thornton, 20 Olly Cracknell, 21 Tyler Ardron, 22 Tom Habberfield, 23 Sam Davies
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (WRU)
Assistant Referees: Sean Brickell (WRU), Paul Haycock (IRFU)
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (WRU)
By Rory McGimpsey