Northampton 20 – 24 Ulster
Ulster ensured their place in the Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 after a Mike Lowry-inspired 24-20 bonus-point success over Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens.
Full-back Lowry scored two tries in the victory, added to scores by wing Rob Baloucoune and scrum-half Nathan Doak, with the latter adding two conversions in an entertaining contest.
Northampton scored their points via a Dan Biggar try, two penalties by the Wales out-half, and a late Rory Hutchinson try, but a catalogue of knock-ons and poor second-half display saw the Saints all but knocked out of the European Cup with defeat.
Indeed, Saints must now travel to face France’s Racing 92 next Sunday (3.15pm) needing a win to have any chance, and requiring other results to go their way. Ulster host Clermont in Belfast next Saturday (5.30pm), as the province will look to finish out their pool campaign with four wins from four and a potential top-two seeding.
Ulster headed to Franklin’s Gardens without key men Stuart McCloskey (centre) Iain Henderson (lock) and John Cooney (scrum-half). Wing Robert Baloucoune returned from injury to start.
For Northampton, Courtney Lawes made his 250th club appearance as he started at blindside flanker. Centre Tom Litchfield made his European debut. Director of Rugby Chris Boyd was absent and serving the first of a two-game ‘match day coaching duties’ ban.
Ulster were first to settle into their attacking game, as the electric stepping and pace of centre James Hume and then wing Ethan McIlroy placed them firmly within the Saints 22.
Within the same passage, the visitors stayed calm through multiple phases before Doak – in for the injured John Cooney – sniped and offloaded to deck, which seemed to end the move. Saints nine Alex Mitchell was first onto it, but knocked the ball forward on the ground, allowing Baloucoune to scoop up and spring over in the corner.
The Irish province soon had their second try when Doak sprinted in untouched on 14 minutes after Lowry had reacted quickest to pick up a loose ball before Baloucoune did real damage in possession to eat up the metres and offload for his scrum-half to run in.
Saints responded positively as Kiwi second row Brandon Nansen – making just his second start for the club – manufactured a stunning carry up the middle of the pitch, but failed to find full-back George Furbank on his shoulder.
Even still, the line-break stressed the Ulster defence, forcing them to give away a penalty for slowing the ball, which Biggar kicked over for 12-3.
Saints grew into the contest by stringing together a number of positive passages through offloading, with Mitchell to the fore, but each time their momentum was stymied by knock-ons.
Ulster forced a scrum penalty in response to get back into the Saints 22, but a prolonged sequence of attacking via heavy carries was ended for them after a costly Doak knock-on at the base of a ruck.
Northampton were next to pass up a huge opening when, after Biggar had produced a phenomenal penalty kick from hand to create a five-metre lineout, the set-piece delivery slipped through the hands of back-row Lewis Ludlam and bounced away.
With three minutes left of the half, Saints would get their opening score as Biggar finished a magnificent move which involved Courtney Lawes, Hutchinson and Tom Collins to bring them right back into the match.
Lawes was the genesis of the try as he stole possession back at the breakdown and countered, before play was switched to the left wing where Scotland centre Hutchinson roared forward and offloaded to wing Collins, who despite being hit hard in a Baloucoune tackle, managed a one-handed offload back inside for Biggar.
With the Wales out-half’s successful conversion, the hosts were back to within two of Ulster, but that good work was undone in the very final minute of the half.
A chip kick from Ulster 10 Billy Burns into the Saints 22 was allowed to bounce, and though Biggar seemed to mop up possession, his pocket was then picked by the diminutive Lowry, who after a brief juggle sprinted in for Ulster’s third try and a 19-10 half-time advantage.
Northampton began the second period on the front foot, and less than two minutes in a devilish Hutchinson grubber kick forced a Lowry knock-on within the Ulster 22. The visitors were soon pinged for failing to roll away and Biggar bisected the uprights from close range off the tee.
Ulster soon had a chance to restore their two-score lead, when Saints were penalised for going off feet within their 22, but after Burns kicked to the corner in favour of a shot at goal, the visitors’ attack was ended after an immense Lawes breakdown penalty.
Ludlam repeated the trick minutes later with Ulster pushing hard at the Northampton line again, conjuring up another outstanding breakdown penalty, but the traffic was very much one way in favour of the Irish side.
On 56 minutes, Mitchell was sin-binned for cynically killing the ball on top of his own line after Lowry had seared through and been brought down just short. Again, Saints came up trumps at the breakdown, however, winning a decision inches from their own try-line after Ulster had taken a quick tap.
Past the hour mark, Ulster did have their fourth and bonus-point clinching try, though, as McIlroy and Lowry linked up down the left, with the latter showing off his pace and calmness to step over.
Lawes – terrific on the occasion of his 250th Saints appearance – limped off soon after, and when Mitchell returned Saints were staring into the abyss as far as their European fortunes were concerned.
Biggar, having turned down a simple shot at goal for a kick to the corner, proceeded to critically kick the ball dead, and when Saints’ lock Dave Ribbans knocked on in midfield shortly after, more time was eaten out of an already-dwindling clock.
With barely any time left, the impressive Hutchinson sliced through to score under the posts, and when Furbank converted quickly via a drop-goal, Saints – quite implausibly – had one final chance.
Having successfully taken in the restart, a knock-on by Saints wing Skosan in midfield meant Ulster could soon get the ball off the park, though, more-than-likely ending Northampton’s European Cup exploits for another season.