Ulster secure bonus-point win despite never shaking Saints off their tails

Stuart McCloskey and Iain Henderson both forced off with injury for home side

Ulster 27 Northampton 22

However the tournament’s bedevilled pool stages pan out from here, who knows, but Ulster couldn’t have done much more. They backed up their fine win in Clermont with a bonus-point victory over Northampton to leave themselves well placed in Pool A.

In truth, Dan McFarland may not have especially enjoyed the night, for despite leading all the way and being palpably the better side, they couldn’t shake off the Saints, who were like a dog with a bone.

Ulster had more ball, more possession, more everything really, but kept giving Northampton an even break.

Inspired by the impish Michael Lowry, they countered superbly, and exposed all manner of deficiencies in the Northampton back three. Ulster's scrum went well, with Marty Moore putting in a good shift around the pitch, as to his credit did Duane Vermeulen in just his second outing, but their lineout malfunctioned unusually.

Nick Timoney and James Hume added to their burgeoning reputations, the former with another big-carrying, all-purpose game to win the man-of-the-match honours and Hume augmented some good footwork and ability to beat the first tackle with excellent defensive reads and tackles.

A blight on Ulster's night was that Stuart McCloskey and Iain Henderson went off with what seemed like hamstring and leg injuries but with John Cooney and Billy Burns pulling the strings, Ulster saw it through.

In a cold but perfectly still night for rugby, there were only a few empty spaces in an atmospheric Kingspan as the lights were turned off before the home team entered to the customary Stand Up for the Ulstermen.

The crowd were fully engaged from the off, helped by Ulster scoring a superb try with the game's first play. The lively Lowry countered with Craig Gilroy and Ethan McIlroy's pass before McCloskey critically kept the ball in play, and Hume gave the attack further impetus when stepping Courtnall Skosan.

A couple of phases later Rob Herring took Burns's disguised short pass to break the tackles of David Ribbans and Ahsee Tuala and score.

Their second try again originated from Lowry, this time taking Alex Mitchell’s clever chip on the run, beating two men and executing a 50/22. Ulster earned a penalty and went to the corner, Herring popping the ball off the maul to Cooney on the blindside and despite the two-on-two, Mitchell lost his bearings, knocked the pass for Gilroy down one-handed, incurring a yellow card and conceding a penalty try.

Next it was Hume on the counter. He gathered George Furbank's kick, countered strongly and chipped cleverly into space. McIlroy steamed onto the ball, stepped Skosan, and had enough to hold the fast-covering Ollie Sleightholme to just reach the line.

Three tries in the first quarter, yet after each one Ulster conceded soft penalties, against Marcus Rea for first not rolling and then not releasing, and obstruction by Herring.

Not only did Furbank land each penalty, but added a fourth after a good break by Sleightholme when Andrew Warwick went off his feet. They also lost the hamstrung McCloskey along the way.

So, despite scoring three tries to none, somehow it was a one-score game at the interval, after Ulster ill-advisedly went up the line on half-time and butchered the lineout.

But after a good defensive set, Cooney’s sharp touchfinder and some good carrying, particularly by Timoney, Rea’s strength in the jackal enabled Cooney to make it a two-score on the resumption.

Another good defensive set and another penalty in the jackal by Rea led to Burns opting for a good touchfinder. Vermeulen’s pressure forced a turnover, Moore won another scrum penalty. To huge roars Ulster went to the corner and with a penalty advantage Burns cross-kicked. Capping an awful night for the poor fella, Tuala misjudged the ball’s flight, affording Gilroy a simple touchdown for his 68th Ulster try.

That good work was quickly undone when Northampton went to the corner and also with a penalty advantage, the ever-dangerous Mitchell swivelled through Cooney’s tackle to score.

Burns twice kicked wide for Gilroy on either flank either side of a big turnover by Vermeulen before Northampton threatened an attack, only for Hume and Vermeulen to seemingly shut the door, the former with a good read and hit on Skosan to dislodge the ball and the latter with another turnover.

However, the ball squirted out of an Ulster ruck for Mitchell to embark upon a weaving run, Furbank providing the link for Skosan to power through Cooney and Stewart Moore, so silencing the crowd.

But they soon let out a relieved roar when good work over the ball by Kieran Treadwell led to Courtney Lawes being pinged for crawling on the deck.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 1 min: Herring try, Cooney con 7-0; 6:Furbank pen 7-3; 15: Penalty try, 14-3; 18: Furbank pen 14-6; 19: McIlroy try 19-6; 22: Furbank pen19-9; 29: Furbank pen 19-12 (half-time 19-1); 45: Cooney pen 22-12; 57: Gilroy try 27-12; 60: Mitchell try 27-17; 78: Skosan try 27-22.

ULSTER: Michael Lowry; Craig Gilroy, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Marty Moore; Alan O'Connor, Iain Henderson (capt); Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Stewart Moore for McCloskey (18 mins), Kieran Treadwell for Henderson (48), John Andrew for Herring (56), Tom O'Toole for Moore (57), Jack McGrath for Warwick (62), Sam Carter for O'Connor (65), Greg Jones for Rea (73). Not used: Nathan Doak.

NORTHAMPTON: Ahsee Tuala; Ollie Sleightholme, Matt Proctor, Fraser Dingwall, Courtnall Skosan; George Furbank, Alex Mitchell; Alex Waller, Mikey Haywood, Ehren Painter; David Ribbans, Api Ratuniyarawa; Courtney Lawes, Lewis Ludlam (capt), Tom Wood.

Replacements: Rory Hutchinson for Tuala (27-33 mins), James Fish for Haywood, Emmanuel Iyogun for Waller, Conor Carey for Painter (all 52), Juarno Augustus for Wood (56), Alex Coles for Ratuniyarawa (57). Not used: Tom James, James Grayson,

Sinbinned: Mitchell (16 mins).

Referee: A Piardi (Italy).