A place in the Guinness PRO12 semi-finals will hang in the balance when Ospreys welcome Ulster to Liberty Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Welsh side remain in the top four despite losing their last three league games, while their Irish opponents sit just one point below them after a narrow loss to Munster earlier this month.
What’s at stake?
Ospreys have a tough end to the season, taking on third-placed Scarlets next weekend, but a bonus-point win on Saturday would secure their semi-final spot.
The Welsh region have not lost four in a row in the Guinness PRO12 since their first season in the competition – 2003/04 – but have only won one of their last six games against Irish provinces.
Ulster cross the Irish Sea looking for the four points that would move them above their Welsh opponents, before they face leaders Leinster in their final game of the regular season.
Ulster made it within touching distance of the top four after winning six straight games earlier in the year, but their streak run was ended by Cardiff Blues and now the province must fight for its play-off place.
Ospreys team news: Steve Tandy has named a strong side for Saturday’s showdown, with captain Rhys Webb pairing up with fellow Wales international Dan Biggar.
Tom Habberfield covers the left wing, with Keelan Giles on the right and Kieron Fonotia and Ashley Beck in midfield, while Dan Evans remains at full-back.
In the pack, the front row of Nicky Smith, Scott Baldwin and Brian Mujati is unchanged from last week and Tyler Ardron replaces Rory Thornton in the second row, working alongside Bradley Davies.
James King moves back to number eight this week and Sam Underhill comes in at blindside flanker with Justin Tipuric at openside once more.
Ulster team news: Les Kiss makes three changes with the recently returned Stuart McCloskey starting at inside centre, with Luke Marshall outside him.
Irish international Craig Gilroy comes into the starting XV at full back, joining up with Charles Piutau and captain Andrew Trimble in the back three.
Paddy Jackson is at fly-half and Ruan Pienaar provides the link between the pack and the backline.
Up front, Robbie Diack is brought in at number eight, with Iain Henderson and Sean Reidy joining him in the back row.
Kieran Treadwell and Alan O’Connor will continue their second row partnership for the fifth game in a row, while the front row of Andy Warwick, Rory Best and Wiehahn Herbst is also retained.
Ospreys head coach Steve Tandy underlined the importance of this fixture on his side’s play-off chances.
“We’re at that point now where we are effectively playing knock-out, play-off rugby already,” he said.
“Everybody knows that the last month or so hasn’t been what we’ve wanted, but it’s important to remember that what we’ve done before that means we are still in fourth place and in control of our own destiny.
“Of course, that counts for nothing if we don’t deliver on the pitch over the next couple of weekends.
“They’ll believe they can win and they’ll be looking to knock us out.
“We’ve got to prepare for that, we’ve got to not just match them from the first whistle, we’ve got to be prepared to fight for everything, right to the end. They won’t come here and just allow us to have it our own way.
“There’s so much at stake over the next two weekends but we can’t look any further ahead than Ulster at the Liberty, where we have the support behind us to help us make the most of home advantage.”
Ospreys have three Lions in their staring XV compared to Ulster’s two as half-back pairing Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar take to the field with flanker Justin Tipuric.
Both of Ulster’s Lions can be found in the pack: hooker Rory Best prepares for his second tour, while Iain Henderson will be pulling on the red jersey for the first time in June.
Key battle: Dan Biggar v Paddy Jackson
Two experienced international fly-halves will face off on Saturday, with Welshman Dan Biggar pitted against Ulster’s Paddy Jackson.
Ospreys will be buoyed by the return of their key playmaker, whose performances in the RBS 6 Nations earnt him a place in the British & Irish Lions.
Jackson has displayed excellent composure for both his province and country, scoring 94 points in ten appearances for Ulster this season.
The Ulstermen have lost just one of their last eight fixtures against Welsh regions: 13-16 in Llanelli in round 13.
Did you know? Ulster’s only defeat in their last seven matches against Ospreys was 20-31 at Liberty Stadium in December 2014.
Ospreys top points scorer: Sam Davies 106pts. Top try scorers: Dan Evans 6
Ulster top points scorer: Ruan Pienaar 100pts. Top try scorer: Jacob Stockdale 8
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 27, Ospreys won 13, Ulster won 14.
At Liberty Stadium, 3pm – Live on BBC NI & Sky Sports
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU, 63rd competition game)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (IRFU), Ben Whitehouse (WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Dennis Jones (WRU)
TMO: Neil Paterson (SRU)
Ospreys closed in on a Guinness PRO12 semi-final spot with a convincing 24-10 victory over Ulster at the Liberty Stadium in Round 21 of the Guinness PRO12.
The Welsh side went five points clear of their rivals in the league standings after first-half tries from Tom Habberfield and Tyler Ardron was followed up by a robust second-half defensive display.
Replacement Brendon Leonard added Osprey’s third as they went in search of a bonus point but Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale responded in the dying minutes for the visitors but the damage was done.
Ulster put pressure on the hosts from the off but Ospreys exited well, led by fly-half Dan Biggar, as they probed deep into Ulster territory.
With just seven minutes gone, the ball squirted out the back of a scrum in the Ulster 22.
Rhys Webb was on hand to pass to centre Ashley Beck who delivered a masterful offload around the back of Ulsterman Stuart McCloskey to winger Tom Habberfield who raced away into the corner for the opening score. Biggar added the extras from the touch line.
But Ulster – fighting for a top-four place themselves – responded with some powerful running from Charles Piutau and Craig Gilroy with captain Rory Best taking a superb offload to bust through a tackle close to the Ospreys line.
The Irish province were thwarted by a superb steal from flanker Justin Tipuric who arrived at the breakdown before any other player.
The visitors continued to probe and were award a penalty soon after, fly-half Paddy Jackson slotted from 40 metres to put his side on the board after 20 minutes.
Ospreys continued to edge possession in a game where both sides were visibly tense with a lot riding on the result, Biggar eased Ospreys’ nerves when he landed a long penalty to restore their seven-point lead.
Moments before the break, Ospreys threatened the line after a superb break from centre Kieron Fonotia, the ball was recycled and Biggar’s long pass to Keelan Giles was almost intercepted by Luke Marshall only for the ball to go into touch.
On the stroke of half-time Ospreys were finally rewarded for their sustained pressure.
Full-back Dan Evans collected a long clearance and sliced through the Ulster defence at speed. He left Gilroy stranded as he passed to Habberfield who in turn found supporting lock Ardron who dived over under the sticks – Biggar slotted the conversion for a 17-3 lead at the break.
The Ulstermen piled on the pressure after the break but the Ospreys defence stood firm during waves of attack on their own line and were rewarded with a turnover which deflated the Irish side.
With a quarter of an hour to play, Ulster knew they had to act quickly to keep their semi-final prospects alive.
Replacement Stockdale collected the ball on the wing – he fended Giles and beat Fonotia to come up just inches short of the line.
Minutes later, the Irish side had a perfect attacking opportunity from a scrum but their passes just couldn’t stick and they gifted possession back to the Ospreys.
And the Welsh side punished the visitors for their errors with replacement Leonard scooting over for Ospreys’ third try with five minutes to play.
Straight from the restart, Stockdale found a dog leg in the Ospreys line to hit back immeditely and set up a grandstand finish with both sides seeking a bonus point.
But replacement Sam Davies bravely collected a bouncing ball with Gilroy bearing down on him to see Ospreys home.
Ulster now rely on other results to go their way to have any hope of qualifying for the semi-finals.
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final
28 Apr 2017