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Ulster progress to Challenge Cup semis with comeback win over Northampton

Dan McFarland’s side beat the Saints by eight points to secure place in the last four.

Michael Lowry and Rory Hutchinson.
Michael Lowry and Rory Hutchinson.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

NORTHAMPTON 27

ULSTER 35

Richard Mulligan at Franklin’s Gardens

ULSTER PRODUCED ANOTHER massive result in Europe as they came from behind to defeat Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens and book a place in the Challenge Cup semi-finals later this month.

Failing to take advantage of three yellow cards – Saints down to 13 men at one point during the first quarter – Ulster went in at the break trailing 22-14.

But they produced a disciplined second-half performance to run in three tries and finally get away from the English Premiership side in what had been a ding-dong affair from the off.

Northampton had made nine changes from the team which had come through to beat Dragons a week previously in Newport, able to name an almost full-strength side for this quarter-final clash.

Meanwhile, Ulster stuck with the same team which had demolished Harlequins in London, and came to Northampton knowing they would get a much stiffer examination, which they managed to pass

The early exchanges saw advantage to Saints at the first scrum, Ulster pinged on the loosehead side and then a promising attack from the visitors which saw Billy Burns miss pass to Stuart McCloskey who in turn sent Robert Baloucoune away on the right.

The Ulster winger grubber-kicked infield, but the chasing Michael Lowry was deemed to be ahead of the ball.

From there Saints found good field position and winger, Taqele Naiyaravoro, bulldozed over Burns and from there the hosts pressed the Ulster line. Stopped the first time, scrumhalf Alex Mitchell got himself out of the maul and dived over the line from an inch out. Centre Piers Francis added the extras for a 7-0 lead after five minutes.

john-cooney-scores-a-try Ulster celebrate John Cooney's try. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Unfazed Ulster responded strongly and moved the ball across the line, but Saints’ backrow Nick Isiekwe was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on Burns four minutes later. 

Having gone three times to touch for consecutive penalties, the driving maul finally began to move, but a side entry from home hooker, Sam Matavesi, saw referee Alexandre Ruiz award the penalty try and Matavesi joined Isiekew in the bin.

Northampton had been down to 13 in their Round of 16 tie against Dragons and they were to get on the scoresheet again with a Francis penalty.

Ulster then upped the ante, wanting to make the numerical advantage count. They pressed in the corner, but Saints managed to halt the driving maul before it got any momentum.

The visitors then tried to move the ball and when Burns chipped delightfully into space, there was a mix-up between Baloucoune and Lowry and neither took the loose ball.

But Saints had been penalised again and as they gave away a seventh penalty, just after Isiekwe returned from the bin, lock David Ribbans was yellow carded and Saints were down to 13 again.

Ulster continued to press via route one at the driving maul and Saints’ hooker Matavesi had just returned when finally the visitors put the gas pedal down and finally breached the home defence. John Cooney added the extras for a 10-14 lead after 24 minutes.

Still down to 14, Saints rallied and Ulster were too loose in defence. The home pack pummelled the line, but access was denied. But from a ruck, Mitchell gave to Dan Biggar and his drilled pass to fullback Tommy Freeman saw him go between two defenders and score, Francis unable to add the extras.

stuart-mccloskey-and-jordi-murphy-with-sam-matavesi Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Ribbans returned to make it a 15-a-side contest for the first time in 25 minutes, Burns kicked off and a break from Saints’ number eight Teimana Harrison off a ruck, saw Mitchell take the offload and he then sent Freeman away from inside his own half to score, Francis converting.

Ulster had one last attack, forced a penalty and Cooney opted for the sticks, but the usual reliable boot pushed in past the posts and the visitors went in at the break trailing 22-14.

An early penalty in the second half saw Burns pop it into the corner, but again Saints were more than able to cope with the driving maul. Ulster opted then to change direction, Cooney popping the ball into the path of Irish winger Jacob Stockdale, but he was held up.

Ulster came again and Reidy broke off a maul, before Marty Moore took it on. Eric O’Sullivan was stopped short and lock Kieran Treadwell came up inches short before Moore finally found a way to power over. Cooney’s conversion brought the visitors to within a point at 21-22 with 47 minutes played.

Ulster were now looking more confident on the ball, going through the phases before Burns put a high ball up for Baloucoune to chase, the young winger scooping it two-handed in the air only to then be pinged for not releasing in the following tackle.

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From there Saints stepped it up and it took a good tackle from Lowry to deny Ollie Sleightholme go in at the corner, while Rory Hutchinson just could not find a way through after stepping on the gas as he crossed into the Ulster ‘22’.

A probing kick from Biggar saw Lowry gather in his own corner, but the fullback was in all sorts of trouble as replacement Fraser Dingwall got over the ball and from the penalty, route one was blocked, the Saints moved the ball right and winger Sleightholme cantered past Lowry to dot down, Francis missing the conversion, but Saints had stretched their advantage to 27-21.

The ding dong affair continued with a training ground lineout move where Alan O’Connor came around the front and charged down the flank. Ulster had clicked it up another gear and replacement prop Tommy O’Toole, Stuart McCloskey, Treadwell and Murphy all drove to the line before Cooney dived over from close out. The scrum half added the extras and Ulster were ahead by a point just after the hour mark.

Ulster then put the screw on, they had Northampton where they wanted them in their ‘22’ and the red tsunami just came, wave after wave, and eventually Stockdale was put in by Burns with Cooney converting to crucially put his side two scores ahead with seven minutes on the clock.

O’Toole made two huge turnovers in the closing minutes and Cooney closed the game out as he missed a penalty attempt with the final kick of the game.
Afterwards captain Jordi Murphy said: “We are obviously delighted because this is a tough place to come to.

“We had a tough start but it is a great feeling to come out of here with a win.

“We did a lot right in the first half but we did not win the physicality battle in that period but we did in the second half.

“We were calm at half-time. I think we can take any team on any day if we have the right attitude, we can do special things.

“Whoever we are drawn against we will take seriously.”

In the other quarter-final played today, Montpellier defeated Benetton 31-25.

About the author:

Richard Mulligan

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