Ulster had their thirteen-match winning run ended by Northampton on Saturday as the English side hit back with a gritty 10-9 win.
Ulster finally had their impressive winning run ended by Northampton on Saturday as the English side hit back with a gritty 10-9 victory at Ravenhill.
In a surprise result, the Saints showed immense character to bounce back from last week's 25-6 defeat with a performance that clearly delighted director of rugby Jim Mallinder at the final whistle.
Northampton were unrecognisable from the outfit that fell so timidly last Friday as Ulster were well-and-truly under the cosh in the early sparring.
They fully deserved their opening points from Stephen Myler on seven minutes as it was an opening that showed Ulster they meant business.
That stirred their hosts though as after Darren Cave's break close to the right touchline, Ulster finally had some possession and territory that cooled the red hot start from the Saints. It was abundantly clear though that Northampton were going to be a much tougher proposition this time.
Saints almost emphasised that point when hooker Mikey Haywood – in for the suspended Dylan Hartley – broke on the left wing to take his side to within five metres. And the pressure finally told on seventeen minutes as lovely handling down the line from Soane Tonga'uiha and Ken Pisi led to number eight Gerrit-Jan van Velze fending off Andrew Trimble en route to the try-line. Fly-half Myler's conversion was solid so Northampton were now ten ahead.
Ulster didn't have thirteen straight wins under their belt for nothing though and in the blink of an eye they were almost going over for their first try of the night. It came from a Myler error as his chip kick was charged down and collected by Nick Williams who set off downfield. However, Rory Best's offload did not find his intended man so Saints survived with just three points going against them for a resulting offence. Paddy Jackson slotted to make it 3-10.
The home fly-half missed the opportunity to double his tally on 34 minutes after Tom Court followed up last week's personal win over Brian Mujati with the first points in the fight with Paul Doran-Jones. Jackson did make amends five minutes later though from the tee.
Northampton continued their fine effort in the second-half and even though Jackson reduced the gap to a single point three minutes after the break, the Saints still had the bit between their teeth and continued to apply the pressure in a meeting that was becoming tense.
In fact there was to be no further score despite Ulster's efforts, the hosts almost scoring a break-out try when Ruan Pienaar and replacement Craig Gilroy combined from halfway until exceptional cover defence and breakdown work from Jamie Elliott saved the day for Saints.
That was what he and many watching thought but a moment of brilliance from another substitute, Paul Marshall, created the grandstand finish at Ravenhill. The busy scrum-half was ordered to back himself down the blindside in his own 22 and promptly raced through a gap and up to halfway before handing on to Tommy Bowe, who slipped badly on the pitch.
However, lock Mark Sorenson then failed to release the ball in the tackle and that led to Pienaar having the chance to win it. He failed to succeed in what was an off-night for the Springbok and Northampton ultimately held on for a result that keeps their hopes alive.
Pen: Jackson 3
Try: Van Velze
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson , 7 Chris Henry (c), 6 Nick Williams, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Callum Black, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Neil McComb, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Luke Marshall, 23 Craig Gilroy.
Northampton Saints: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Tom May, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Gerrit-Jan van Velze, 7 Phil Dowson, 6 Tom Wood, 5 Calum Clark, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Paul Doran-Jones, 2 Mikey Haywood, 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Ross McMillan, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Brian Mujati, 19 Mark Sorenson, 20 Courtney Lawes, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Luther Burrell.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Gwyn Morris (Wales), Jonathan Mason (Wales)
Television match official: Derek Bevan (Wales)