Sloppy Ulster cough up their perfect record
Ulster 9 Northampton Saints 10:Northampton Saints exacted a measure of revenge for last week’s drubbing at Franklin’s Gardens by inflicting on Ulster their first defeat of the season in the home side’s 14th match.
The Irish province can have few complaints as they had enough possession and territory but could not breach a valiant visiting defence. The Saints scrambled extremely well but there was more to their game.
The showed a greater level of precision and composure and crucially took their chances, scoring the only try of the match. Compounding a disappointing night was what appeared to be a serious leg injury suffered by Tommy Bowe. He was removed on a stretcher after a six minute delay.
Northampton won this game up front, initially through their back five in the pack, who were excellent at the breakdown, and then their halfbacks who controlled the game intelligently.
Ulster’s first-half performance was pockmarked by mistakes that afflicted all aspects of their performance from simple handling errors, turnovers, poor protection of ruck ball to some ropey decision making. There were times when the offload was a high risk strategy something that the home side didn’t appreciate and it was so costly.
Nick Williams twice made excellent surges into space, the first occasion from a charge down and the second time when finding space through the centre of a ruck. The New Zealander accurately offloaded both times but the next pass was less precise and the opportunity was lost.
The Saints 10 points came from Ulster’s errors but to their credit the English club were playing with a pace, intensity and perhaps most importantly patience and precision that allowed them to implement their patterns through several phases.
From the moment they gathered Stephen Myler’s well judged kick-off, they took the Ulster defence through multiple phases, varying the point of attack from around the fringes to midfield and then closer to the touchline.
The six changes that Saints’ coach Jim Mallinder made certainly made a difference, primarily in the control and clever punting from halfbacks Lee Dickson and Steve Myler and opting to put flanker Callum Clark in the secondrow gave the back five added mobility.
Northampton benefitted hugely at the breakdown where their backrow players were able to force several turnovers at ruck time. It offered a safety valve for the pressure that Ulster were trying to build.
Myler kicked a 12-metre penalty on six minutes and then the visitors struck in earnest on 17 minutes with a try from number eight Gerrit-Jan van Velze - he would soon be replaced by Courtney Lawes - a reward for some excellent continuity and finally width though several phases.
Fullback Ben Foden looked to have knocked on a high ball but referee Nigel Owens waved play on and when the Saints won the aerial battle for Myler’s up and under, the passage culminated in the South African number eight crashing over in the corner. Myler added a touchline conversion to put his side 10-0 up.
Ulster gradually found a rhythm but turnovers and basic handling errors thwarted their efforts to maintain field position and possession. Outhalf Paddy Jackson did claw his side back into the match by kicking two penalties from three attempts to leave the home side trailing 10-6 at the interval.