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Paddy Jackson won the battle of the fly-halves as he kicked six penalties to Dan Biggar’s four as Ulster Rugby claimed a 18-12 victory over the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium, ending their unbeaten run in the RaboDirect PRO12 in the process.
In a game where defence smothered attack it was the boot of the Welshman that ruled in the first 45 minutes as Biggar gave the home side a 12-0 lead. But Jackson kept his cool as Ulster fought back to end the night with a perfect record off the tee and the man-of-the-match award.
Biggar had an early chance to show off his footballing skills with a booming kick to touch after Ulster had gone offside in the Ospreys 22. From the resulting lineout the ball was fed to Biggar whose attempted drop-goal was charged down by the onrushing Rory Best.
Ulster suffered an injury blow on 12 minutes when full-back Craig Gilroy hobbled off injured to be replaced by David McIlwaine.
Shortly afterwards Chris Henry was penalised at the lineout for pulling down his man in the air, and Biggar used his boot to send the Ospreys deep into Ulster territory. From the lineout Nick Williams was pinged for not rolling away from the tackle presenting Biggar the easiest of opportunities in front of the posts to make it 3-0.
The Ospreys had their best chance of the half when scrum-half Tito Tebaldi found the charging Ashley Beck and he beat his man before offloading to Richard Hibbard in a dangerous position only for Justin Tipuric to be penalised for accidental offside.
With the clock ticking down to half-time Biggar was successful with his second penalty attempt from the right of the posts after the referee blew up for a Dan Tuoy elbow on Ospreys skipper Alun-Wyn Jones at the maul.
And Biggar made it 9-0 immediately after half-time when winger Mike Allen ran offside and the Welsh fly-half struck a superb shot inside the right post.
On 44 minutes Biggar extended the Ospreys’ lead further after Luke Marshall failed to roll away in the tackle giving the fly-half another long shot at goal that he took with aplomb.
Jackson had an immediate chance to reduce the deficit when Adam Jones was penalised at the scrum and the Ireland No.10 kept his nerve to make it 12-3. On 52 minutes it was 12-6 after a second well-taken penalty from Jackson after Joe Bearman went offside at a lineout near halfway.
Sixteen minutes into the second period and the Ospreys were penalised for wheeling a scrum on their ten-metre line and Jackson struck with his third successful penalty to keep up his 100 per cent record.
Ulster had their best passage of play when a loose Hassler clearance gave the visitors an attacking platform and they attacked left and right, Ian Evans conceding the penalty and giving Jackson his easiest three-pointer of the evening.
All level going into the final ten minutes, a loose pass from Biggar gave Ulster the chance to break from deep and Olding kicked through for McIlwaine to chase but with the try line looming play was pulled back for a push on Richard Fussell.
But Ulster took the lead for the first time with a massive Jackson penalty off the tee from near halfway to make it 15 unanswered points in the second period.
With time ticking down and the pressure on the Ospreys began to make handling errors as they faced up to losing their unbeaten record this season.
And it looked all over when replacement Aaron Jarvis was sent to the sin bin with three minutes left for not rolling away in the tackle.
Jackson stepped up and slotted the resulting penalty to make it six from six, but with the last attack of the game the Ospreys went for broke, Stuart Olding saw yellow for not rolling away and Ulster found themselves defending for their lives on their own try line.
But a knock-on from Hibbard and then an offside decision snuffed out any chance of a dramatic fightback.