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Two-try Gilroy helps Ulster see off Ospreys to take place in Champions Cup

John Cooney underlined his importance to the northern province as he kicked 15 points to help seal victory.

Image: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Ulster 35

Ospreys 17

Sean Farrell reports from Kingspan Stadium

IT WAS RARELY pretty, and not quite as clear-cut the scoreline suggests, but Ulster put a silver lining on a season to forget with a four-try win over Ospreys.

Victory means it will be the northern province rather than the Welsh side who become the seventh Pro14 representative in next season’s Champions Cup. And that achievement could bring knock-on benefits for Ulster’s recruitment of key personnel.

As has been the case all season, John Cooney was exceptional for his adopted province, kicking 15 points, but also coming up with an intercept that put Ulster firmly in the driving seat of the play-off early in the second half.

Jacob Stockdale got his hands on an almost customary intercept try before the end too, but it was the electric pace of Craig Gilroy who scored the all-important tries to turn a hard-fought contest into a procession towards what the Kingspan faithful hope will be brighter days ahead.

With Rory Best and Iain Henderson already out injured, and head coach Jono Gibbes travelling midweek to speak with La Rochelle, it was a day when Ulster needed all hands to the pump. Instead, the personnel was whittled down even further between the warm-up and kick-off.

In what was supposed to be his farewell game before a lucrative move to Bristol, Charles Piutau pulled up injured in the warm-up. Ross Kane was withdrawn at the 11th hour too,  so Craig Gilroy and Ireland U20 Tom O’Toole were thrust into starting jerseys.

The medical team’s work wasn’t capped there. By the time the clock ticked to 23, Callum Black and Louis Ludik were marked injured. So, having not been in the matchday 23 30 minutes earlier, David Busby was thrust into Ulster’s fullback role with an enormous prize on the line.

The sight of battered bodies tentatively walking off was made even more ominous by the early dominance of Ospreys’ pack, which yielded a try for Alun Wyn Jones after 15 minutes of quiet control from the visitors.

Allen Clarke would have been disappointed that his side weren’t at least in double figures by the interval as Dan Biggar slammed penalties off either post.

Ulster’s John Cooney kicks a penalty Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

With Sean Reidy exerting an influence, Ulster managed to bridge the gap in penalties. First allowing John Cooney open their account after 26 minutes, and after Biggar missed the second of his first-half penalties, Johnny McPhillips kicked his side to an attacking platform in the Ospreys 22.

From there, a sparse crowd by Ulster standards — thanks in no small part to season ticket holders being required to pay for a one-off game under the auspices of the Pro14 — finally saw a move to celebrate thanks to Luke Marshall’s clever grubber through the defensive line to allow Gilroy finish in the corner.

Cooney wasn’t able to squeeze the touchline conversion in and Ulster were more than content to take an 8-7 lead into-halftime. And within two minutes of the restart, the ex-Connacht and Leinster man was lining up another kick from the right touchline.

The second half got off to the best possible start for Ulster as Ospreys fluffed a set play off a scrum just inside their own half. With excellent line-speed Cooney intercepted a sloppy pass, popped the ball to McPhillips who instantly released a kick to the corner and Gilroy beat Biggar in the foot race for the loose ball.

Robbie Diack as he leaves the field Robbie Diack was the sole departing player who was able to walk off unaided. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

15-7 and everything was suddenly rosy around Ravenhill. The two-try momentum shift seemed too much for an Ospreys team who have won just nine games this season to withstand. As they flirted with implosion Ulster turned the screw, paving the way for Kieran Treadwell to rumble over and put the hosts 15 points to the good.

Ospreys changed tack and there was suddenly great width and a furious tempo to their game and they began to stretch Ulster. Luke Marshall was badly injured in the process of denying a try in the left corner. But come the 60th minute Jeff Hassler made the most of an overlap and dived over in the right corner.

Jacob Stockdale scores a try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

By the end, Biggar would touch down a third Ospreys try, but any prospective comeback was confidently quelled by Cooney’s unerring boot.

And when Stockdale stole onto a loose 72nd minute pass, it was time to celebrate a fine end to a torrid season.

Scorers

Ulster

Tries: C Gilroy (2) K Treadwell, J Stockdale

Conversions: J Cooney (3/4)

Penalties: J Cooney (3/3)

Ospreys

Tries: AW Jones, J Hassler, D Biggar

Conversions: D Biggar (1/3)

Penalties: D Biggar (0/2)

ULSTER:  Louis Ludik (David Busby ’19), Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall (Darren Cave ’57), Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Jonny McPhillips, John Cooney (Dave Shanahan ’75); Callum Black (Andrew Warwick ’23), Rob Herring (captain), Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Robbie Diack (Chris Henry ’62), Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney (John Andrew ’72).

OSPREYS: Sam Davies; Jeff Hassler, Ashley Beck, Owen Watkin (James Hook ’55), Hanno Dirksen (Cory Allen ’46); Dan Biggar, Tom Habberfield; Nicky Smith (Rhodri Jones ’53), Scott Otten (Ifan Phllips ’72), Dmitri Arhip (Ma’afu Fia ’53) ; Bradley Davies (Adam Beard ’72), Alun Wyn Jones (capt); Dan Lydiate (Sam Cross ’48), Justin Tipuric, James King.

Referee: Marius Mitrea

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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