Ulster maintain 100 per cent European start with Northampton win

Mikey Lowry player of the match as province books spot in Champions Cup knockouts

Northampton Saints 20 Ulster 24

Ulster maintained their 100 per cent start in the Champions Cup and booked their place in the last-16 of the competition with a win over Northampton Saints that will have perhaps offered Andy Farrell a reminder of the talents of Mike Lowry.

The uncapped fullback, who trained with the Test side last summer, was in supreme form at Franklin’s Gardens, scoring two tries and earning player of the match honours in the 24-20 win.

Dove-tailing brilliantly with the fit-again Robert Baloucoune here, Lowry's fleet footed breaks from deep were more than the English opposition could handle.

Coming in without Iain Henderson, John Cooney, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale, the odds didn't seem particularly weighted in favour of the northern province, all the more so when the Saints' team selection confirmed they were not one of the sides taking a laissez faire attitude to European competition after a stuttering start.

The visitors have been made of sterner stuff on their travels under Dan McFarland though and their record against English opposition is impressive.

This 11th win in the last 13 attempts against Premiership sides saw Ulster start and finish the first half in the ascendancy with a brief Saints purple patch in between.

Coming off such a deflating performance against the 14 men of Munster in Thomond Park a week ago, there was no sign of a hangover when Robert Baloucoune smartly snuck in for an early try. The Irish wing, back from injury just in time for the coming week's Six Nations squad, reacted the quickest to the bouncing ball and powered in between the opposing wing and fullback to finish strongly in the corner.

Remarkably, Ulster's next two scores would similarly come from looking sharper when the ball spilled to the deck. Mike Lowry stooped and scooped in one motion when Rory Hutchinson couldn't gather his own kick, allowing Baloucoune to send Doak under the posts.

And it was the fullback again showing his smarts when he capitilised on the confusion in the Saints backfield after Billy Burns had sent a chip over the top intended for Stewart Moore.

In between the latter two of those three first half tries Dan Biggar added a try, conversion and penalty for the hosts but Ulster will have been more than happy with their first 40 minutes in the English midlands.

When Lowry knocked on under no pressure to start the second half it opened the door for the Saints to force a penalty which Biggar kicked to cut Ulster’s lead to just one score.

And so it remained, nervously for the visitors, until the hour mark.

They first looked set to secure the try bonus with a penalty knocked into the corner but Saints would halt their maul without much ground gained with Lawes completing the job with a turnover soon after.

When Kieran Treadwell gathered a high ball and sent Mike Lowry haring up the touchline, the fullback looked an even better bet to get that all important fourth score but he too was halted short, illegally so by Alex Mitchell who was sent to the sin bin.

Ulster used the stoppage to spring Ian Madigan from the bench but the Saints read his dummy kick to the corner and were alert enough to smother him off the tap and go.

Errors looked to be creeping in for Ulster at the most unwanted of times but Nick Timoney secured a key turnover at the breakdown and, on the hour mark, Ulster finally got over the line again.

Again Baloucoune and Lowry were the ones providing all the cut and thrust. It was the winger who broke a tackle and somehow got his arms free to send Lowry clear for the game’s most crucial score.

Mitchell would return soon after but as the minutes ebbed away, so too did the chances of Saints derailing Ulster’s charge to the last 16 even if Rory Hutchinson’s late score ensured the need for one last defensive stand.

Scorers: Northampton - D Biggar, R Hutchinson tries; D Biggar 1 pen, 1 con, G Furbank 1 con. Ulster - R Balacoune, N Doak, M Lowry (2) tries; N Doak 2 cons.

Northampton Saints: G Furbank; C Skosan, T Litchfield, R Hutchinson, T Collins; D Biggar, A Mitchell; A Waller, S Matavesi, E Painter; D Ribbans, B Nansen; C Lawes, L Ludlam, T Harrison.

Replacements: A Ratuniyrawa for Nansen (40 mins), J Augustus for Harrison (56), E Iyogun for Waller (60 mins), A Coles for Lawes (64 mins), T Freeman for Biggar (67 mins), J Fish for Matavesi (71 mins), K Garside for Painter (71 mins), T James for Mitchell (76 mins).

Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; A Warwick, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor, K Treadwell; M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.

Replacements: E O'Sullivan for Warwick (15 mins), I Madigan for Burns (56 mins), T O'Toole for Moore (58 mins), S Carter for O'Connor (58 mins), D Shanahan for Doak (58 mins), G Jones for Rea (67 mins).

Referee: P Brousset (France).