AS dress rehearsals go, the Ospreys’ 34-16 win over Zebre last night was a useful run through ahead of next week’s Heineken Cup opener against Treviso.
Assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys had told his players this was their opportunity to claim a starting place for the forthcoming European campaign, and they responded with a professional display.
Zebre had briefly threatened an upset after reducing their deficit to 21-16, but they were undone by tries from Richard Fussell, Jonathan Thomas and Dan Biggar, who ended with 24 points.
As well as preparing the Ospreys for Treviso’s visit to the Liberty Stadium next Friday, this victory also boosted their RaboDirect Pro12 title defence, which seemed to be on the ropes only a matter of weeks ago.
After three defeats from their opening three fixtures, this was a third successive triumph for Steve Tandy’s men, who had accounted for the Scarlets and Munster in their previous league outings.
And although Zebre may not be as notable a scalp as the aforementioned pair, the Ospreys will be relieved to have avoided a second defeat of the campaign in Italy.
They fell to a frustrating 12-6 reverse away at Treviso on the opening weekend of the Pro12 season, though they rarely looked like succumbing to another loss last night.
It helped that they managed to keep all 15 players on the pitch, as Ian Evans’s first-half red card had proved costly against Treviso.
Evans was one of a host of internationals in a formidable Ospreys pack at the XXV Aprile Stadium, and their forward power helped lay the foundation for what was ultimately a comfortable win.
The newly-formed Zebre are still without a victory in their inaugural season, and they seldom looked like claiming their first scalp on this occasion.
After financial difficulties saw Aironi fold last season, the vast majority of their unattached players joined the Parma-based Zebre.
Ospreys assistant coach Gruff Rees had spent the last campaign in charge of Aironi’s backs, so the Welsh region might have tapped into his insider’s knowledge about the threats that some of his former players might pose.
Any dossier Rees may have compiled would have been rather thin, however, as Zebre only seldom looked like breaching the Ospreys’ defence.
The visitors wasted little time in asserting themselves, with Biggar kicking a sixth-minute penalty to give them a 3-0 lead.
Zebre responded with an 11th-minute penalty of their own from Gonzalo Garcia, but parity was short-lived as Biggar restored the Ospreys’ advantage with his second three-pointer in eight minutes.
Like the Ospreys themselves, Biggar appears to have rediscovered his poise in recent weeks and the Wales fly-half was again instrumental to the Pro12 champions last night.
Controlling the tempo of the match and kicking intelligently from hand, the Wales fly-half ensured the Ospreys were able to dominate territorially.
Biggar added a third penalty to stretch the visitors’ lead to 9-3, and it was not long until Zebre began to show signs of cracking under pressure.
Their scrum-half Alberto Chillon was sin-binned after 24 minutes, and his misdemeanour was to land his team in trouble almost immediately.
Four minutes later, Ospreys full-back Richard Fussell finished a sweeping move in the corner for the game’s opening try and Biggar converted to give Tandy’s side a 16-3 advantage.
If there had been concerns of a Zebre comeback when Garcia missed a penalty attempt, such worries were eased when Jonathan Thomas took advantage of a turnover in the Italians’ 22 to touch down for the Ospreys’ second try.
Biggar missed his conversion and Daniel Halangahu struck Zebre’s second penalty to reduce the deficit but, with a 21-6 half-time lead, the Ospreys looked like they were coasting towards a third victory in a row.
The visitors, however, were given a jolting wake-up call at the beginning of the second half.
Zebre bolstered their front row by bringing on the vastly experienced Italy international Salvatore Perugini, and the veteran’s introduction seemed to have an instant impact.
His fellow prop Luca Redolfini crashed over for Zebre’s first try and, with Halangahu converting, the hosts had clawed their way back into contention at 21-13 down.
The Italians’ revival then gathered more momentum as Halangahu converted his second penalty of the evening to cut the Ospreys’ advantage to five points.
There may have been concerns when Adam Jones was replaced by Aaron Jarvis shortly afterwards, but the Wales prop was merely fatigued on his first start of the season.
Biggar gave the visitors some breathing space with his fourth penalty, and Zebre began to undo their earlier good work when Matteo Pratichetti was shown a yellow card.
From the ensuing penalty, Biggar bagged another three points and the Ospreys looked to have swung the encounter back in their favour at 27-16.
Having impressed with the boot, the fly-half then went over for a try of his own as he ran in from 20 yards following a brilliant break from Eli Walker.
Biggar converted to take his personal haul to 24 points and, although the Ospreys missed out on a bonus point, a third win in succession will see them start their Heineken Cup campaign in fine form.