Fired-up Saints halt Ulster's gallop
Ulster 9 Northampton Saints 10Ulster coach Mark Anscombe displayeda soothsayer’s perception when he fretted about his team retaining the intensity and accuracy that had underpinned their victory in Franklin’s Gardens for the rematch in Ravenhill.
The New Zealander warned about the mental steel and physical precision that would be non negotiable components if the Irish province were to repeat the dose in Belfast. Forewarned the players might have been but, on the basis of a slovenly performance, they certainly weren’t forearmed. Tommy Bowe’s knee injury and Dan Tuohy’s popped calf muscle compounded an unpalatable evening in general for the 10,997 crowd.
It was Ulster’s first defeat in 14 matches in all competitions this season, bringing to an end their unbeaten run and the first occasion that they have lost a Heineken Cup match at Ravenhill since Stade Francais four years ago.
Those statistics are trivial when weighed against the nature of the display; that will irk more. For all their shortcomings on the night,and there were many, Ulster could still have extricated themselves from defeat, although such an outcome would have been rough on the visitors.
Anscombe didn’t sugar-coat his feelings: “Our execution was poor and we suffered for it. Theygot 10 pointsupin the first 18 minutes and, [while] we held them out well a couple of times, wewere a bit lucky later on. “But I think we created enough opportunities to score points. We weren’t patient enough and didn’t have any composure at crucial times.We tried to force it. They brought more passion than us at the start and their physicality got them going.
“We weren’t complacent, but we were passive early on. We built into it (the game) but weren’t composed enough to take our points. The dressing room is sad because we lost our first game, but the reality is that we got bettered by a better team and that happens sometimes in this game. . . .”
A flinty-eyed Northampton Saints side, bristling with aggression and implementing defined patterns in possession with patience and intelligence, chased the opening kick-off with a gusto that would underpin everything they did, and but
for a couple of rash decisions might have stockpiled another couple of tries.
The six changes that Saint coach Jim Mallinder made from the previous game had a very positive effect as did the impact of those initially demoted to the replacements. Outhalf Stephen Myler managed the game shrewdly and kicked accurately.
The key difference though was the pace of the ruck ball that Northampton managed at the breakdown. The presence of four backrow forwards in the back five assisted in guaranteeing quick ball.
In American international colossus, Samu Manoa, the Saints had the game’s outstanding player whether winning restarts, carrying ball or thundering into tackles: but for a double movement he might have claimed a try early in the second half. The home side were to escape moments later when Tom May fumbled Myler’s grubber kick with the line at his mercy.
The Ulster players will reflect on the handling errors (17) that scuppered ambition, a scrum that folded like a concertina after Tom Court’s departure, conceding penalties – Saints’ scrum after Alex Waller and Brian Mujati introduced were quicker across the gap on engagement – and the general slipshod nature of the display.
It afflicted almost everyone in a white jersey, although Court, Chris Henry, Nick Williams, Iain Henderson, Darren Cave and upon introduction Craig Gilroy and Paul Marshall finished on the positive side of the ledger.
Northampton’s excellent start include a try from number eight Gerrit-Jan van Velze, fending off Andrew Trimble who slipped as he went to tackle, and Myler’s touchline conversion and penalty. Paddy Jackson kicked three penalties from four attempts to reduce the deficit to a single point, a minute after the restart.
Williams twice surged clear but his work was undone, by poor handling and decision making. Ruan Pienaar charged down Myler’s attempted drop goal but after regathering and some inter-passing, Gilroy was collared by Jamie Elliott’s last gasp tackle.
The young wing did even better on 77 minutes following a wonderful blindside break from his own 22 by Ulster replacement scrumhalf Paul Marshall.
He raced to halfway and then timed his offload to Bowe. Elliott desperately scragged Bowe and in trying to regain his balance the Irish wing hyper-extended his knee.
Ulster had one final chance but Pienaar’s penalty – he missed with an ambitious long range effort from his own half earlier – from 32m was drifting wide from the moment he struck the ball. Anscombe admitted: “We’ll bounce back. There are three teams in it. The fact is, we’re still leading it with two games to go and our destiny is still in our hands.
6 mins: Myler penalty, 0-3; 17 mins: van Velze try, Myler con, 0-10; 29 mins: Jackson pen, 3-10; 37 mins: Jackson pen, 6-10. 42 mins: Jackson pen, 9-10.
ULSTER: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace,A Trimble; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; I Henderson, DTuohy; NWilliams, C Henry (capt), R Wilson. Replacements: C Gilroy for Trimble (56 mins), P Marshall for Jackson (61), C Black for Court (68), L Marshall for Wallace (68), R Diack for Williams (71),NMcComb for Bowe (77),R Lutton for Tuohy (79 mins).
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: B Foden; K Pisi, GPisi, T May, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga’uiha,MHaywood, P Doran-Jones; S Manoa, C Clark; T Wood, P Dowson, G-Jan van Velze. Replacements:C Lawes for van Velze (25 mins), B Mujati for Doran Jones (53), A Waller for Tonga’uiha (63), MSorenson for Clark (63), R McMillan for Haywood (78).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).