IT WASN’T the performance either the fans or the coach wanted or expected.
On Friday night, a packed Ravenhill Rugby Ground in east Belfast was expecting Ulster to return after a three week break to see off the Ospreys and continue their rich rein of form.
Instead, the Ospreys ended Ulster’s unbeaten home record in this season’s Rabo Direct Pro12 with a well deserved win.
Ulster Coach Mark Anscombe was less than pleased with his side’s performance after the final whistle.
“We were pretty poor,” said an unhappy Anscombe.
“I said to the boys that we seem to saving our worst performances for our home track. That’s a concern.
“We have the best supporters in the country and we don’t give them much to cheer about when they come here.
“It was half an hour into the game before we got our first points on the board.
“Ospreys came her with a young team, they bullied us, broke up our play and bullied us up front.
“They took their opportunites and fair dues to them they won the game.”
Both teams were below their normal strength, with some 30 players missing in total due to International duties.
The half time score of 9-6 to Ulster didn’t paint a true picture – Ospreys controlled the possession and only Ruan Pienaar’s expert kicking skills get the home team’s nose in front.
Matthew Morgan’s third Ospreys penalty levelled the contest before a Stuart Olding penalty restored Ulster’s lead.
However, a breakaway try by Ospreys prop Ryan Bevington proved the crucial score as the champions took victory.
Ospreys skipper Kahn Fotuali’i produced a classy display to edge his scrum-half duel with Pienaar and a disappointing night for the Springbok was completed as he was forced off midway by an apparent shoulder injury.
Ulster’s line-out misfired badly throughout the contest with hooker Rob Herring struggling to find his jumpers on several occasions.
Both sides were badly hit by international commitments and injuries although Ulster did welcome back Andrew Trimble and fit-again skipper Johann Muller with James King and Ryan Bevington starting for the Ospreys after being released from the Wales squad.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe handed a first start to Ireland Under-20 fly-half Olding while wing Ben John made his debut for the visitors.
Pienaar did kick Ulster into the lead with a penalty from 40 metres in the fifth minute but Morgan quickly had the visitors on terms as the Ospreys began to dominate possession.
Against the run of play, Pienaar kicked Ulster into the lead against in the 15th minute with a 50-metre penalty after the Ospreys had been caught offside.
However, the visitors were quickly back in the home team’s 22 after Ulster had been penalised for a couple of scrum indiscretions and the pressure yielded a second successful penalty for Morgan.
The Ospreys continued to dominate possession but failed to capitalise on a couple of threatening positions with Trimble bravely gathering to avert the danger after Richard Fussell had opted to kick instead of availing of an overlap.
Somehow, Ulster were in the lead again on 33 minutes as Paddy Wallace’s half-break past Joe Bearman into the Ospreys 22 set up a routine penalty for Pienaar and the home team maintained that advantage to the interval.
Shortly after the restart, Wales and Lions wing Alun Wyn Jones came on for his first action since being injured against Australia in November.
Morgan’s third successful penalty levelled the contest at 9-9 in the 54th minute as the Ospreys continued to have the greater share of possession.
An even bigger concern for Ulster was losing Pienaar because of a suspected shoulder injury although the introduction of livewire replacement Paul Marshall did see Ulster producing a period of sustained pressure for the first time in the match.
With Pienaar off, Olding kicked Ulster back into the lead on 65 minutes but it proved a short-lived advantage as prop Bevington ran in a sensational breakaway try after initial breaks by Jonathan Spratt and Kahn Fotuali’i.
Morgan added the conversion to increase the champions’ lead to 16-12 who were down to 14 men at the time of their try after after Morgan Allen had been sin-binned moments earlier..
Ulster responded with some immediate pressure but the Ospreys produced some heroic defending deep in their own 22 and then controlled the final 10 minutes of play to secure their merited victory.
Ulster: R Andrew; A Trimble, L Marshall, P Wallace, M Allen; S Olding, R Pienaar; C Black, R Herring, T Court; J Muller (capt), L Stevenson; M McComish, A Birch, R Diack.
Replacements: D Cave for Wallace 44, C Cochrane for Allen 76, P Marshall for Pienaar 58, N Annett for Herring 58, D Tuohy for Muller 58.
Not Used: R Lutton, A Warwick, N McComb.
Ospreys: R Fussell; T Habberfield, T Isaacs, J Spratt, B John; M Morgan, K Fotuali’i (capt); R Bevington, S Baldwin, C Griffiths, L Peers, J King, M Allen, S Lewis, J Bearman
Replacements: D Jones for Bevington 75, A Wyn Jones for Peers 49.
Not Used: M Dwyer, D Arhip, I Gough, R Ellis, R Jones, J Murphy.
Referee: M Mitrea (FIR)