|European Champions Cup play-off: Ulster v Ospreys|
|Ulster (8) 35|
|Tries: Gilroy 2, Treadwell, Stockdale Cons: Cooney 3 Pens: Cooney 3|
|Ospreys (7) 17|
|Tries: A W Jones, Hassler, Biggar Cons: Biggar|
Ulster took the seventh and final qualifying place in the 2018-19 European Champions Cup as they saw off Ospreys the Pro14 play-off in Belfast.
Alun Wyn Jones’ try put the visitors ahead before Craig Gilroy struck twice as Ulster took the initiative.
Kieran Treadwell’s try and John Cooney’s penalty put the hosts further ahead, despite Jeff Hassler’s score.
Jacob Stockdale’s interception off a James Hook pass sealed Ulster’s win before Dan Biggar’s consolation try.
Ulster end on high note
Defeat means Ospreys are consigned to playing in Europe’s second tier Challenge Cup next season.
The visitors had the better of the opening quarter, but Ulster gradually seized the initiative to end an inconsistent season in Conference B on a high note.
Ospreys’ campaign was bedevilled by a poor start that culminated in the January departure of Steve Tandy from the head coach role.
Ex-Ulster hooker and coach Allen Clarke took the reins and oversaw a revival in Conference A that gave Ospreys their chance to play in Europe’s top tier next season.
But the hosts overcame injuries and pre-match withdrawals to earn the right to rub shoulders with Europe’s elite.
Injuries and departures
Injuries ruled out Ulster captain and hooker Rory Best and lock Iain Henderson beforehand, with Rob Herring taking over at hooker and captain for Best.
Ulster also lost full-back Charles Piutau in the warm-up, while Tom O’Toole started at tight-head instead of Ross Kane in another late change.
The hosts also bade farewell to departing Charles Piutau, Callum Black and Robbie Diack, while retiring Ireland internationals Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Paul Marshall were not included in the squad.
Ospreys were boosted by the return of British and Irish flanker Lion Dan Lydiate, who had been expected to miss the rest of the season with a biceps injury.
Fly-half Biggar, who along with Worcester-bound centre Ashley Beck has been an Osprey since 2007, was playing his final game before joining Northampton, while Hassler and prop Dmitri Arhip were also bowing out for the Welsh region.
Ulster finished fourth in Conference B while Ospreys came fifth in Conference A, but they qualified for the play-off as third-placed Cheetahs were not eligible for the European Champions Cup as they are a South African side.
The play-off was a repeat of the meeting between the two sides in Belfast on 13 April, which Ulster won 8-0.
Biggar saw an early penalty shot rebound off an upright, but the visitors took the lead when Wales lock Jones drove over from close range for the fly-half to convert.
Rare Ulster pressure gave Cooney the chance to kick their first points, but by that stage the hosts had also lost wing Louis Ludick and prop Callum Black to injury.
A second penalty rebound for Biggar gave the hosts some relief from the early dominance of Ospreys’ pack.
Hassler gives Ospreys hope
During a brief period in which the home side got on top, Gilroy raced on to Luke Marshall’s well-placed kick to put the hosts ahead at the break.
Gillroy’s second came less than two minutes after half-time, when Ospreys lost the ball in contact and fly-half Johnny McPhillips kicked through for the wing to beat Biggar to the touchdown.
Cooney converted superbly from the touchline and added another after lock Treadwell breezed through a disjointed Ospreys defence.
Hassler gave Ospreys hope, but it was extinguished as Cooney added two more penalties in a 15-point tally before Stockdale raced away.
Biggar crossed late on and in his attempt at a drop-goal conversion, hit an upright for the third time in the game.
Ulster: L Ludik; C Gilroy L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney; C Black, R Herring (capt), Tom O’Toole, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, R Diack, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, R Ah You, J Regan, C Henry, D Shanahan, D Cave, C Gilroy.
Ospreys: S Davies; J Hassler, A Beck, O Watkin, H Dirksen; D Biggar, T Habberfield; N Smith, S Otten, D Arhip, B Davies, A Wyn Jones (capt), D Lydiate, J Tipuric, J King.
Replacements: I Phillips, R Jones, M Fia, A Beard, S Cross, M Aubrey, C Allen, J Hook.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR)
Assistant referees: Mike Adamson (SRU), Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (SRU)
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