THE Ospreys snuck into the RaboDirect Pro12 play-off places with a nervy 16-15 win over bottom side Zebre — but it could easily have been an embarrassing defeat for the reigning champions.
The Italians led 8-6 at half time thanks to a try from Alberto Chillon, but the hosts were bailed out by Dan Biggar who touched down late on and claimed all 16 of his team's points.
After consecutive derby triumphs over the Scarlets and Dragons, this was a sobering start to 2013 for Steve Tandy's side.
But despite the uninspiring performance, their win and the Scarlets' defeat in Ulster was enough to lift the Ospreys back into the top four.
The Ospreys had already been the victims of an upset this season as they suffered a first ever defeat to an Italian side against Treviso on the opening weekend, though they did beat Zebre 34-16 when the teams met in October.
Bottom of the table and without a single win from their dozen Pro12 outings to date, Zebre had been expected to be steamrollered by their in-form hosts last night.
It was the visitors, however, who made the better start.
With a sense of adventure which seemed to surprise the Ospreys, Zebre winger Giovanbattista Venditti and scrum-half Chillon combined with some wonderfully deft offloading to sweep into the home side's half.
That enterprising attack ended with a pass to touch, but Zebre were rewarded for their attacking intent with three points courtesy of a Chillon penalty.
When the Ospreys had last played on their own turf, they mauled the Scarlets 32-3 with the ruthless efficiency of a military invasion.
There was not the faintest trace of such a masterful all-round display last night, as the Ospreys struggled for fluency and had only a Dan Biggar penalty to show for their bumbling early efforts.
By contrast, Zebre made a mockery of their league standing with relish.
Fly-half Paolo Buso released full-back Alberto Benettin with a cheeky jink and pass and, although Ospreys flanker James King thwarted that attack with an interception, the Italians were to make their next foray count.
Symptomatic of scrappy first half from the Ospreys, the game's first try was the result of a mistake from the hosts.
Visiting No. 8 Andries van Schalkwyk picked off a pass from Tom Isaacs and cantered into the Ospreys' 22, burrowing his way to within a yard of the try line.
Support then arrived in the form of Chillon, and the scrum-half snuck over from close range for a touchdown he failed to convert.
The Liberty crowd were dumbfounded into silence to see the Ospreys trail 8-3, though they were given a semblance of comfort when Biggar struck his second penalty.
The hosts appeared to have finally woken up some five minutes before half time, as they drove their way into the Zebre 22 and applied heavy pressure at the scrum.
Van Schalkwyk was sin-binned for disrupting an Ospreys maul by entering from the side, and the hosts sought to capitalise on his absence by calling for another scrum.
But they were frustrated in their efforts break through the Italians' defence and went into the interval 8-6 behind.
Despite holding a surprise lead, Zebre made five substitutions at the break, bringing on a brand new front row and replacing their try-scorer Chillon.
Desperate to inject some urgency into their limp performance, the Ospreys brought Kahn Fotuali'i — arguably the region's player of the season so far — on for Rhys Webb at scrum-half.
It had little immediate effect as the match continued to be punctuated by an endless stream of errors.
The crowd stirred as often as it could, though the silence around the Liberty told how uninspiring a spectacle this was.
On more than one occasion, the only sound from the stands was the bellowing instructions from Zebre backs coach and former Italy scrum-half turned human klaxon Alessandro Troncon.
Biggar edged the Ospreys in front for the first time with his third penalty and, with little more than ten minutes left, the game burst into life.
Isaacs was the catalyst, speeding out of his own 22 and into the Zebre half before going to ground and waiting for the cavalry to arrive.
The Ospreys recycled the ball swiftly and swept the ball out to the right wing, where Ross Jones swerved past two defenders and passed to Fotuali'i.
The Samoan then found Biggar, and the fly-half's arcing run took him past visiting full-back Alberto Benettin and over the line for a try he converted.
It was an exemplary score and completely at odds with a dreadful game, as if a chef had decided to present his diners with a Roquefort soufflé moments after serving up a pile of stale sausage rolls.
The Ospreys' joy was short-lived, as Zebre replacement Tito Tebaldi snuck over in the corner for the visitors' second try.
With a successful conversion, the Italians now trailed 16-15 and, despite a frenetic final few minutes, the Ospreys held on for victory.