It was a heartbreaking afternoon at the Liberty Stadium for the Ospreys, who were forced to settle for a draw that ends their knockout hopes for another year despite dominating for large periods.
They were forced into a very late change on the wing when Ross Jones, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Friday, pulled out with an ankle injury sustained during the warm up. 20-year old scrum half Tom Habberfield stepped up to make his European bow in the unfamiliar number 14 shirt.
The opening stages were predictably frenetic and hectic as both teams looked to lay their marker down, play ebbing to and fro with no rhythm or structure.
The scrum contest was an eagerly awaited one, and we had to wait until 10 minutes in for the two packs to go head-to-head, referee John Lacey’s verdict as the first scrum went down was penalty to the Ospreys, Marcos Ayerza the offender.
The kick was on the Tigers 10m line, and although Dan Biggar had the distance his kick struck the left hand upright and bounced safely into Leicester hands, allowing Toby Flood to clear.
Biggar had a chance to redeem himself just 90 seconds later from the right hand touchline for Leicester hands in the ruck, but unusually his radar was off once again, pulling it to the right of the posts.
The Ospreys were starting to take control of the game, and it looked like third time lucky for Biggar after Tigers hands in the ruck, but his long-range effort unfortunately dropped onto the crossbar at the very last before bouncing to safety.
The first real Leicester threat came at the start of the second quarter, good hands in midfield allowing Matthew Tait to break up the left wing. As he stepped infield, for a second it looked as though he was going to find a way to the line only for Habberfield’s last ditch ankle tap to bring him down. It was recycled in midfield, allowing Steve Mafi to crash towards the line only for Ian Gough to strip him in the tackle, eventually winning the penalty,
A great half-break in midfield from Kahn Fotuali’i then took the hosts upfield, the scrumhalf skipping through two challenges before releasing Justin Tipuric. The open side was stopped five metres short, and he was just unable to find Fotuali’i with his attempted offload for what would have been a certain try.
The Ospreys kept up the pressure from the resulting lineout, Ryan Jones, Ryan Bevington and Andrew Bishop all banging on the door. When Leicester eventually offended at the ruck the home fans were screaming for a yellow card that never came, but on this occasion Biggar’s radar was working and he eventually got the scoreboard moving 27 minutes in.
It was all Ospreys, and a neat sidestep from Tipuric in midfield almost saw him finding a way through, his chip ahead in the 22 just having too much on it, but just a minute or so later they were celebrating the opening try of the game.
It was a well-worked try, sparked by Fotuali’i in midfield, before Tipuric took up the ball, feeding Bevington. The prop had too much to do if he was going to reach the line himself so he took the tackle before passing to Joe Bearman who stepped infield past the covering defender to leave himself with a simple saunter over the line, Biggar’s conversion taking it to 10-0 just past the half hour.
A minute before the break a rare Tigers foray into Ospreys territory resulted in a penalty against Richard Hibbard for side entry to the ruck, Flood slotting the kick over.
HALF-TIME: OSPREYS 10 LEICESTER TIGERS 3
Having lost Ryan Jones with a blood injury in the closing stages of the first half it was confirmed at the restart that the switch was permanent, Lloyd Peers in the second row and James King moving to the blindside.
The second period opened in the same frenetic manner as the first as the teams wrestled for supremacy in a keenly contested affair.
Leicester then enjoyed their best spell of possession, pressing on the Ospreys line without looking like find a way through the black wall. Flood’s hopeful kick to the corner was gathered by Fussell who bravely danced his way past two onrushing attackers to launch a counter-attack from within his own 22, releasing Eli Walker who hared forward, chipping over Tait from halfway and backing himself to win a race for the line – a race he looked like winning only for it to bounce out of play close to the corner.
With the clock moving past the hour the Ospreys were still holding onto their seven point lead, but for the first time of the afternoon were finding themselves pinned back into their own half as the Tigers upped the tempo.
The Tigers sent on their regular front row replacements just past the hour, but their first involvement saw Martin Castrogiovanni penalised for standing up at the scrum. Biggar went for goal from 42m out, looking to take his team more than one score ahead, but unbelievably he struck the woodwork for the third time.
Leicester came back with some force, and although there was a suspicion of an Ospreys defender being taken out at the ruck illegally by Steve Mafi as he went off his feet, the visitors were finally able to make their pressure count. Louis Deacon was stopped just short, but there was no stopping Ben Youngs as he picked up at the base and dived over. Flood’s conversion levelled things with less than 15 minutes remaining.
Flood then put the Tigers back into the Ospreys corner with a well-placed kick, and when the Ospreys made a hash of their own lineout, resulting in a Leicester scrum on the line, the Tigers were able to turn the screw. The forwards did the hard work before Anthony Allen was hauled down. The ball was recycled quickly and Niall Morris crashed over in the corner, the TMO confirming the grounding as Leicester took the lead for the first tine, with just seven minutes to go.
Flood pulled his conversion attempt right across the face of the posts, leaving the Ospreys trailing by five with just four minutes remaining.
Time was almost up but the Ospreys, who by then had also lost Richard Hibbard with a shoulder injury, refused to give up hope and they were rewarded with their second try, a dazzling effort started by Walker who launched a trademark scything run from halfway deep into Leicester’s 22, from where Fotuali’i’s long pass allowed Spratt, hugging the right touchline, to bundle his way across the line.
The scene was set for Biggar to win the game at the death but his touchline conversion was inches wide, and both sides were forced to settle for the draw.