They left it late, but the Ospreys battled to victory at Parc y Scarlets to kick off the Domino’s Derby series against their local rivals with a Boxing Day win.
Replacement second row Ian Evans touched down with just six minutes to go, putting his team ahead for the first time in the match, before an incredible closing passage of play saw the Scarlets battering the opposition line without being able to get through some dogged defence.
The win makes it 11 consecutive victories against Welsh opposition for the Ospreys in the PRO12, their last derby defeat coming exactly two years ago at the same venue, and means that the South Wales Evening Post Challenge Cup, awarded to the winner of the Ospreys v Scarlets clash, stays in the Liberty Stadium trophy cabinet for another eight days at least.
The Scarlets’ biggest crowd ever in the regional rugby era saw a helter skelter, error strewn opening, both teams coughing up possession cheaply in the early minutes. First up, it was the Ospreys pressing after stealing the ball at a Scarlets lineout, and then shortly after at the other end, the defence had to scramble after Richard Hibbard and Sam Lewis found themselves in trouble on their own line.
It was the hosts who got the scoreboard ticking first, Rhys Priestland with the penalty for tackler not releasing, before the same player struck the right upright from halfway after an Ospreys offence at the scrum.
As you’d expect given the occasion, it was being played at a frenetic pace, with big hits on both sides as the two teams wrestled for supremacy, every kick, tackle and half-break cheered to the rafters by a loud and passionate crowd.
Slowly, the Ospreys were able to build some territory and possession, and they almost grabbed the opening try 27 minutes in. The move stemmed from a scrum in the shadow of the posts, when although the Ospreys pack were under pressure, Ryan Jones was able to get the ball away to Dan Biggar, who exchanged passes with Sam Davies before sending a long ball out wide to Jeff Hassler. The Canadian pinned his ears back and went for the line, only to be halted just short. He did manage to offload to Ben John but the centre was bundled out of play as he attempted to cut back infield a few metres out.
Biggar then had a chance to level things five minutes from the break with a long-range kick from halfway. However, with his preparation interrupted by referee Leighton Hodges, who stepped in to move the tee back a metre, the fly-half snatched at his kick, pulling it to the left of the sticks.
The Ospreys were slowly gaining the upper hand but neither side were able to find a way through before the break, leaving it evenly balanced at just 3-0 to the hosts as they went in at the halfway point.
HALF-TIME: SCARLETS 3 OSPREYS 0
Having been on top at the end of the first half, the Ospreys began the second in a similar fashion, and Biggar had another opportunity to bring his team level just two minutes in but, with blood streaming down his face, his kick from the 10m line was narrowly wide to the right.
A good kick-chase then put Hanno Dirksen under pressure in his own 22 but the Osprey defence was able to get back in numbers to provide the support needed. Former Osprey Kristian Phillips was caught by Sam Lewis as he looked to go round the outside, and after soaking up Scarlets pressure over a series of phases, the penalty went to the visitors, allowing them to clear the danger.
Priestland made it 6-0 with a kick 25m out on the left after Alun Wyn Jones had been penalised for pulling down the jumper at a lineout.
It was an intense, physical contest, but Hassler’s chance in the first half apart, neither team had looked like cracking the opposition defence, until the breakthrough looked as if it was made by the Ospreys a minute before the hour.
A lineout on the left on the Scarlets 10m line provided the platform to attack, Biggar working a nice passing move with Ashley Beck, looping around the back to collect before slipping it Sam Davies, coming into the line at pace. His quick hands freed Dirksen who accelerated towards the line and appeared to squeeze through the tightest of gaps to score in the corner.
The decision was referred upstairs though, and after endless replays, slow-mo’s and freeze frames, TMO Tim Hayes eventually ruled no try, deciding the winger’s leg was in touch despite one angle appearing to show the slightest bit of green grass between his left leg and the line as he dotted down.
With the game inside the final 15 minutes, good work at the breakdown on their own 10m line led to an Ospreys turnover, replacement Tyler Ardron carrying well to take the visitors over halfway. The Scarlets killed the ball at the ensuing ruck, allowing Biggar to finally slot one over, reducing the deficit to three points.
By this stage the Ospreys were on top, and they eventually breached the hosts defence with a little over six minutes left on the clock, taking the lead for the first time. It was a score to delight Forwards Coach, Chris Gibbes, an unstoppable rolling maul after Biggar had put them in the corner, Ian Evans the man touching down. Biggar’s conversion took the score to 10-6 in the Ospreys favour.
As expected, the Scarlets threw everything at the Ospreys in the closing stages after a penalty allowed Priestland to put the home team close to the line. Ospreys offences led to a series of five metre line-outs as the pressure built, Alun Wyn Jones taking a yellow card for the team as he was sinbinned for illegally halting a rolling maul.
Eventually, having failed to break down the close-up defence, the Scarlets opted to move the ball wide, but again there was no way through as aggressive defence saw the attacking team forced backwards to the 22metre line. After 21 phases and with time up, Sam Lewis was able to get in to contest the ball, the Scarlets penalised for holding on, which enabled Biggar to clear to touch, bringing to a close a dramatic and exciting contest.