Dan Biggar's bad luck allows Tigers to set up Toulouse showdown
Ospreys 15 Leicester 15
Perhaps Ospreys should feel grateful for their bad luck, for without it they would have no luck at all. Stripped bare by a casualty list of "slasher movie" proportions – no Alyn Wyn Jones or Ian Evans in the boilerhouse of the scrum, no Ashley Beck or Hanno Dirksen out wide – the most accomplished of the four Welsh regional sides hit the European buffers in Swansea today despite giving Leicester an almighty hurry-up.
Dan Biggar, on the brink of a Six Nations call-up, missed five wickedly difficult kicks by the sum total of next to nothing. Fine margins? The margins at the Liberty Stadium were virtually non-existent.
The first thing to say about Biggar is that he should not beat himself up about it, even for a second. Once he hit the bar with a long, acutely-angled penalty shot; twice he hit the post, again from distance. When Jonathan Spratt dived over at the flag for an equalising try in the 76th minute of another gem of a Heineken Cup contest, the outside-half went within a gnat's crotchet of nailing a conversion from the worst possible position on the field, centimetres from the right touchline. All things considered, he did brilliantly to go as close as he did, as often as he did.
But we are in the world of the "if only" here, and "if" is the most useless word in the sporting dictionary. Ospreys, courageously flying the flag for a Welsh domestic game in a more parlous state – politically and financially, as well as competitively – than at any time in the professional era, could have won this game, and probably should have won it. End of. There are no consolation prizes.
By failing to secure full value from their excellent first-half performance, masterminded by the sensational Kahn Fotuali'i (left) at scrum-half, they allowed Leicester to snaffle enough from the game to set up a winner-take-all meeting with Toulouse at Welford Road in six days' time. The victors will finish the round-robin stage on top of Pool 2 and claim a place in the knock-out phase. The losers? Thank you and good night.
"That was a tight one, but we're where we wanted to be at the start of the competition," said Richard Cockerill, the Leicester rugby director. "I suppose we're disappointed that we'll have no chance of a home quarter-final if we get to the last eight, but at least we've set up a real occasion against Toulouse. It should be a classic, and yes, I believe we can win. They're not in the best of form this season and anyway, we always feel we can get a result at our place."
The Tigers, the side all Europe wanted to beat and loved to hate a decade ago but struggling to reassert their Heineken Cup authority these days, looked badly out of sorts in the first half and could easily have been 15 points adrift at the interval. Unable to keep Fotuali'i in his box for more than a few seconds at a time and constantly troubled by quick-witted and deeply committed Ospreys across the field – Richard Hibbard and Joe Bearman amongst the heavy mob, Richard Fussell and Eli Walker in the backs – Leicester fell behind to Biggar's penalty just shy of the half-hour before finding themselves seriously dented three minutes later.
Justin Tipuric, the open-side flanker who fought a battle royal with the highly effective Julian Salvi in the loose, felt he had a reasonable shout for a penalty try when he rubbed shoulders with Mathew Tait after chipping for the line, but even though there was nothing doing as far as the excellent referee John Lacey was concerned, the danger for the visitors was anything but over. Fotuali'i attacked off a clearance kick from Niall Morris, the prop Ryan Bevington made ground down the left and Bearman was on hand to take the flip-up and spin his way to the line for a converted try. Unfortunately for Ospreys, who had lost their wing Ross Jones to a warm-up injury minutes before kick-off and been forced to field the 20-year-old scrum-half Tom Habberfield in his place, there was more orthopaedic hassle just around the corner. Ryan Jones, who had brought his precious experience to bear in the back row, dislocated a thumb – the bone could be seen protruding through the skin – and bade a reluctant farewell. Almost immediately, Leicester reduced the arrears with a routine Toby Flood penalty after paying a rare visit to the enemy red zone.
If it was far from a decisive development, it gave the visitors some much-needed succour. With Marcos Ayerza and Dan Cole slowly establishing governorship in the set-piece, Leicester applied pressure in ever-increasing amounts after the break and were duly rewarded when Ben Youngs touched down round the edge of a ruck after excellent approach work from Flood, Tait and Manu Tuilagi. They capitalised further eight minutes from time when Morris dived over in the right corner after a goal-line siege.
Yet with the intense physicality taking a heavy toll – Tuilagi, generally regarded as indestructible, failed to go the distance, as did Hibbard and Tom Youngs – there was always the possibility of another twist, and it came when Walker, a beautifully balanced runner as well as an unusually rapid one, ripped through a trio of Leicester chasers after fielding a clearance kick near halfway. When the wing was finally brought to earth, Fotuali'i – who else? – was on hand to nurse Spratt over for the leveller, albeit in a part of the field that made Biggar's match-winning task too awkward for words.
"We're disappointed, of course," admitted Steve Tandy, the Ospreys head coach. "It's a solemn dressing room in there. But I've never seen as much fight in a group of players as there is in this team. The way they represent themselves when they pull on the shirt is nothing short of magnificent. We had people dropping like flies – when we told young Tom Habberfield that he was playing out of position, it was quite a bombshell for him – and any other side would have thrown in the towel at 15-10 down. These players? They don't know when they're beaten."
Neither do Leicester, in fairness to them, and that bloody-mindedness should stand them in good stead when the most successful Heineken Cup club of them all cross the water and head into town this weekend. To borrow from Tandy, any other side might have thrown in the towel at 10-0 down. The Tigers have been known to throw a few punches, but towels? Never.
Scorers: Ospreys: Tries Bearman, Spratt; Conversion Biggar; Penalty Biggar. Leicester: Tries B Youngs, Morris; Conversion Flood; Penalty Flood.
Ospreys: R Fussell; T Habberfield (J Spratt 62), T Isaacs, A Bishop, E Walker; D Biggar, K Fotuali'i (capt); R Bevington (D Jones 73), R Hibbard (S Baldwin 59), A Jones, I Gough (S Lewis 73), J King, R Jones (L Peers 33), J Tipuric, J Bearman.
Leicester: M Tait; N Morris, M Tuilagi (M Smith 70), A Allen, A Thompstone; T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza (l Mulipola 59), T Youngs (R Hawkins 68), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni 59), L Deacon (capt), G Parling, S Mafi, J Salvi, J Crane (T Waldrom 55).
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).
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