Match report: Ospreys 12 Ulster 18
CRIME prevention people were said to be thinking of paying a visit to the Ospreys’ home after the place was ransacked twice in six days just over a year ago.
Raiders from Glasgow and Ulster made off with the spoils amid fears the region’s entire security system had gone on the blink.
They seemed to have sorted out the problem themselves, but the alarms failed again as six Paddy Jackson penalties saw Mark Anscombe’s team home in Swansea, halting the region’s 14-match unbeaten home record.
The Ospreys can’t have many complaints.
They weren’t shown any favours from referee Peter Fitzgibbon, but they struggled for ball throughout and paid the price for their indiscipline.
Dan Biggar did land four well-struck shots at goal, but it wasn’t enough as Ulster upped the tempo to win the game with 18-unanswered points.
It was pretty much the last thing Steve Tandy would have wanted with Leinster to be faced in the Heineken Cup next Saturday.
His side had started the season superbly, with an unbeaten run spanning four matches, three of which were played on the road.
But Ulster didn’t reach the Pro12 final last term by chance and they were once again able to demonstrate their ability to succeed away from Belfast. They won eight encounters on their travels in the league last term and the habit hasn’t deserted them.
For Tandy and his fellow coaches, the immediate challenge will be to repair the psychological damage of this defeat.
A side doesn’t go from good to bad in the space of 80 minutes, but confidence is a notoriously frail bubble and you sense the Ospreys will need to pay special attention to the mental side of their preparations if they are to beat Leinster.
There was a consolation that the losing bonus point took Tandy’s side to the top of the table ahead of Glasgow’s game against the Scarlets.
But it won’t feel much like consolation.
The Ospreys were well beaten. And that doesn’t happen often in Swansea.
An iron law of top-level sport is that a side doesn’t know how good they are until a fully tooled-up opposition arrive in town ready to rumble.
Ulster were missing Ruan Pienaar and the injured Tommy Bowe but they had their captain Johann Muller back as well as their ball-carrying talisman Nick Williams, a player who evidently had his reverse gear removed at birth.
Andrew Trimble returned on the right wing, while the dangerous Craig Gilroy featured at full-back and Chris Henry lined up on the openside flank.
It was a decent side and the Welsh region were expecting a stern test.
They weren’t exactly light on quality themselves, with all five of their Lions — Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans and Justin Tipuric — named for the first time this season.
The early exchanges were like a game of chess with muscles.
The Ospreys were turned over at the first line-out, but they responded when Joe Bearman ripped possession from an Ulster ball carrier before making 20 metres on the charge.
There is certainly no great secret over how to knock the spring out of the step of travelling opponents. It involves making an unequivocal declaration of intent early on, perhaps by landing direct hits on away ball-carriers with rib-bruising force.
The idea is to make the visitors feel a long way from home and prevent them from taking encouragement.
Right on cue, then, Justin Tipuric and Bearman stopped Robbie Diack dead in his tracks, before Ryan Bevington cut down Williams, 30 seconds before Bearman did the same to the powerful No. 8.
Sporting tangerine boots that could probably be spotted from the moon, Bearman was everywhere in the first quarter, driving into Ulster cover and working overtime in defence — even passing the ball through his legs at one stage.
The Ospreys finally broke the deadlock on 20 minutes when Ulster were penalised at a ruck, allowing Biggar to punish them from 25 metres.
But there was nothing in it. Play became concentrated between the 22s, with both sides charging forward only to be cut down uncompromisingly.
So close to trench warfare was it at times you almost wondered whether the two sides had been taking coaching tips from Field Marshal Haig.
The Ospreys’ line-out spluttered throughout the first half, while the scrums were a lottery, but there was nothing wrong with the home team’s defence, Tyler Ardron bringing the crowd to their feet by scragging scrum-half Paul Marshall.
Soon after, Ashley Beck found a gap from a line-out. Richard Hibbard offered support, but the move died when the Ospreys were penalised for crossing.
They did end the opening half on a positive note, though, when Biggar landed a magnificent angled penalty from 45 metres to give the home team a 6-0 interval lead.
Ulster didn’t learn their lesson.
Within three minutes of the second half starting, they had given away two more penalties, and with Biggar in the opposition ranks that was asking for trouble.
Neither kick was easy. The first was from close to the touchline close on 40 metres out, with the second dead in front but from close to the half-way line. But both flew through the middle of the posts as the Ospreys moved 12-0 ahead.
But Jackson then went on to show there was more than one man on the pitch who could plant the ball between the sticks.
Possession started drying up for the Ospreys and they started giving away penalties, allowing the Ulster fly-half to drag his side back into the game.
He slotted a hat-trick of penalties in the space of seven minutes to trim the deficit to three points.
And the situation went from bad to worse for the hosts as they continued to give Jackson kicking chances, with the Ireland international punishing them twice more to nudge the visitors ahead for the first time.
To put the tin hat on a disappointing evening for the hosts, Aaron Jarvis was yellow-carded for killing the ball, and Jackson nailed another penalty.
The Ospreys had one final surge for the Ulster line. But, not for the first time, they were penalised again by referee Fizgibbon, who was jeered by the crowd.
By contrast, Ulster fans were exultant, their side having tuned up perfectly for Europe.