Ospreys claim battling draw in Munster
Munster 13 Ospreys 13.
IF the Ospreys are to reach the heights of the play-offs this season, they are going to have to ascend the mountain via the toughest possible route.
Glasgow and Leinster are still to be played away, and Steve Tandy's side may not be able to lose even one more game.
The challenge is akin to climbing K2 without safety ropes.
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There is also an encounter with the Blues at the Millennium Stadium, plus home games against the Dragons and Treviso.
March has just dawned and the Ospreys are already looking for favours — maybe from Glasgow, who have yet to visit the Scarlets, who are one place and a point clear of the Liberty Stadium region.
It is not what Tandy would have wanted, but it was always going to be a challenge for his side after defeats in their first three outings of the season, two of them at home.
They have since lost just twice in the league but with a depleted back line they have been finding it hard to pick up bonus points and if they are not careful that could cost them.
They know they can't afford to feel sorry for themselves and they realise, too, that it isn't beyond them to see out the season unbeaten after their Wales players return from the Six Nations. But they have left themselves with a huge amount to do.
Munster are in an even worse position, their race looking run, with a seven-point gap between themselves and the fourth-placed Scarlets.
Glasgow, Ulster and Leinster look safe bets for the top three places in the league, leaving the Welsh pair locked in a grim struggle for the final spot.
The place looks the Scarlets' to lose, with away games against the bottom two sides in the league, Zebre and the Dragons, in the coming weeks and three home dates to follow, against Glasgow, the Blues and Treviso.
If Simon Easterby's side blow it from here, they will have no-one to blame but themselves.
It was the old story for the Ospreys in Limerick: a mighty defensive effort, backed by spirited forward play but limited penetration behind the scrum.
Ultimately, losing so many quality backs last summer, among them Shane Williams, Tommy Bowe and Nikki Walker, after waving goodbye to James Hook and Lee Byrne the previous year, has caught up with them.
When they had everyone fit in the backline, they were able to paper over the cracks caused by the departure of so many high-class players.
But injuries have robbed them of Hanno Dirksen and Andrew Bishop, while Eli Walker and Dan Biggar are away with Wales and Ashley Beck is working his way back to match sharpness.
The result has been an unbalanced backline lacking specialist wings and a genuine cutting edge.
Both Tom Habberfield and Tom Isaacs tried their best, with Habberfield, in particular, having a fine game, but they are not flyers by choice.
It has been the same tale for much of the season, with the Ospreys trying to cover desperately for injured or unavailable players, and how they must wish they had money to spare.
They could then invest in a couple of overseas three-quarters who would be around during international periods, as other regions have done with different areas of their sides.
Where the Ospreys are not short is up front, notwithstanding all the forwards they have in Wales's Six Nations squad.
They are shining up a number of gems, some of whom were on display at Thomond Park, among them Sam Lewis, Scott Baldwin, James King and Lloyd Peers.
Lewis had a magnificent game at openside flanker.
The Ospreys have rightly earned plaudits for developing so many front-five players but their production of No. 7s is none too shabby, either.
Justin Tipuric is in the Wales team and if Lewis carries on like this he can expect a call for the tour of Japan this summer.
In many ways the 5ft 10in, 15st 10lb former Swansea forward is a smaller version of Dan Lydiate: totally fearless, recklessly committed and a master of the chop tackle. Time and again he hurled himself low into the advancing red tide at Limerick, killing moves and on several occasions jumping to his feet and achieving turnovers.
One count had Lewis eventually finishing with 27 tackles, while King came up with 21 — stats that tell you everything about why Munster couldn't add to their one try despite an abundance of possession.
The old guard did their bit as well, with Duncan Jones outstanding in the loose in the 57 minutes he had on the field, while Jonathan Thomas carried ball and displayed some nice touches at No. 8.
Cai Griffiths also tackled strongly, while Alun Wyn Jones will have benefited from the game as he continues his comeback from injury.
But a win proved beyond the Pro12 champions.
Usually, a draw at Thomond Park would be considered a good result.
It is a venue where Munster don't make a habit of handing over points, after all, and the only visiting sides to have won in the league there since 2009 are the Ospreys and Leinster. But this time parity would have left the visiting players and coaches less than satisfied.
The first half flew by with Munster looking to play with width only to find the visitors' defence repeatedly slammed in their faces.
A touchdown from Damien Varley swung the initiative the home way after the break, only for the Ospreys to work an excellent catch-and-drive try from a line-out, Alun Wyn Jones jumping high, Lloyd Peers taking the ball forward and Jonathan Thomas crashing over.
At 13-13 with close on half an hour still to play, the odds were on further points.
But a combination of motivated defence and ordinary handling allowed the Thomond Park scorer to put his feet up for the rest of the game.
No-one in Limerick cheered at the final whistle.
But listen hard enough and the players may just have been able to pick up the odd celebratory shout from Llanelli.