Northampton 27 Ulster 35
In a fascinating match that ebbed and flowed, it was Ulster’s power game and maturity that ultimately took them to the semi-finals of the European Challenge Cup as they saw off Northampton.
After a slow start in the first half Ulster grew into a match that stayed close as it changed hands but the visitors to Franklin’s Gardens proved themselves the better finishers as they surged away on the hour mark with two tries to see them home.
Northampton began the sharper and it took just five minutes for scrumhalf Alex Mitchell to pick and dive after Tiemana Harrison had bumped up some hard yards. Piers Francis converted and the home side were 7-0 ahead.
It was shortly after the opening try that the game dragged for Ulster as Northampton, giving away a series of penalties, started shipping yellow cards. First Nick Isielawe head-butted Billy Burns in a tackle and was shown yellow on 10 minutes.
Fijian hooker Sam Matavesi went to the bin on 12 minutes and David Ribbans was shown yellow on 23 minutes. During that time all Ulster could muster was a penalty try for Matavesi pulling down a lineout maul. Francis then kicked a penalty for before Rob Herring touched down from another Ulster lineout maul on 25 minutes, which John Cooney converted to make it 14-10 for the visitors.
It wasn't much of an Ulster lead for three players in the bin, especially when minutes after Northampton were restored to 15, Tommy Freeman scored two tries in two minutes, the second as he tore up the ground from 40 metres out to close the first half with Northampton 22-14 ahead.
But it was Ulster baring teeth after the break and at the beginning of the second half Jacob Stockdale was just held up five minutes in before tighthead prop Marty Moore bundled over with some help from his team-mates as Ulster's power game began to pay off. Cooney converted to make it a one -point game.
It was still far from over with young Ollie Sleightholme ending a nice running Northampton move in the corner as they went 27-21 up. But the home side began to make mistakes and Ulster, led by captain and man-of-the-match Jordi Murphy, began to toughen up with hard ground-gaining carries.
From that pummelling Cooney stretched over and through bodies for a try, then converted for Ulster to go 28-27 ahead. From there they didn’t stop, sweeping forward and through the phases with outhalf Burns finally putting Stockdale through with a show and pass on 72 minutes for the winning score.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 4 mins: A Mitchell try, P Francis con 7-0; 12: Penalty try 7-7; 16: Francis pen 10-7; 25: R Herring try, J Cooney con 10-14; 33: T Freeman try 15-14; 35: Freeman try, Francis con 22-14. Half-time. 47: M Moore try, Cooney pen 22-21; 58: O Sleightholme try 27-21; 62: Cooney try, Cooney con 27-28; 72: J Stockdale try, Cooney con 27-35;
NORTHAMPTON: T Freeman; O Sleightholme, R Hutchinson, P Francis, T Naiyaravoro; D Biggar, A Mitchell; A Waller (capt), S Matavesi, P Hill; D Ribbans, A Coles; N Isiekwe, L Ludlam, T Harrison.
Replacements: A Tuala for Naiyaravoro (6 mins), F Dingwall for Freeman (55), E Painter for Hill, A Waller for Auterav, M Haywood for Matavesi (all 66), A Moon for Coles (69), T Wood for Isiekwe (73), T James for Mitchell (76).
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor, K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy (capt), N Timoney.
Replacements: M Rea for Reidy (50 mins), T O'Toole for Moore (57), E McIlroy for Lowry (60), A Warwick for O'Sullivan (66), I Madigan for Burns (76), A Mathewson for Hume (79).