In a sun-drenched stadium:mk, Ulster got off to a shaky start when Andrew Trimble knocked on a catch from the Saints' kick-off. From a quick restart after the Ulster front row had engaged into the scrum too early, Soane Tonga'uiha barged through the visitors' defence to touch down right on the line after good work from former Ravenhill favourite Roger Wilson. Stephen Myler converted to set the score at Northampton 7 Ulster 0 on five minutes.
Ian Humphreys clawed three points back almost immediately with a perfectly-executed 50-metre penalty, and Ulster went on to show that any early nerves had been overcome with a fluent attack on 10 minutes which saw Simon Danielli cross the try-line, but only after a forward pass from Humphreys.
Ulster continued to show invention as the game progressed at a hectic pace, and were rewarded with a second penalty on 14 minutes, which Humphreys again slotted home with a minimum of fuss. The out-half continued to dictate the game from the boot as play entered the second quarter, and, although the Saints then enjoyed a good spell of pressure around the 25-minute mark, the Ulster defence was rock-solid and kept Northampton danger-man Chris Ashton on a short leash.
Northampton should have increased their lead to 10-6 on the half-hour thanks to a Myler penalty, but the out-half's kick spun well wide of the left-hand post, and Ulster built on this lucky escape with a great break in two phases by their two star wingers. Danielli used his pace and power to carve a hole in the middle of the Northampton defence before being halted five metres from the line, and Ulster recycled rapidly to allow Trimble to go over behind the posts and atone for his opening-minute error. The Humphreys conversion cemented the lead at Northampton 7 Ulster 13.
As half-time sped closer, Ulster had another narrow escape when a horrible bounce from a Saints kick-on outfoxed Humphreys and gave Ben Foden possession on the Ulster 22. Danielli was close enough to his out-half, however, to snuff out the danger with a meaty tackle and force Foden to release the ball to no-one in particular. The last action of the half then saw Myler put over a penalty to reduce the gap to three points.
Half-Time Score Northampton 10 Ulster 13
Ulster started the second half alert and alive, so much so that two early Northampton charge-downs of Humphreys kicks went unpunished as a white shirt was always first to the rebound. But it was Saints who were next to score after Dan Tuohy was penalised for not releasing his man in the tackle, and Myler restored parity at Northampton 13 Ulster 13 on 48 minutes.
Tempers started to flare two minutes later as the pressure mounted, but Northampton showed better composure on 55 minutes with excellent work down the left wing from Myler, Foden and Ashton eventually allowing scrum-half Lee Dickson to touch down an excellent collective try. Myler's conversion nudged the lead back to seven points at Northampton 20 Ulster 13 just before the hour mark.
Ulster almost struck back immediately, but D'Arcy was unable to hold on to Pienaar's pass mere metres from the try-line with Danielli waiting in the wings for what would have been a sure-fire try. Undeterred, Ulster continued to apply pressure, but conceded their ninth penalty of the encounter on 64 minutes, and allowed Myler to put clear daylight between the teams with an exquisite kick from distance.
The out-half failed to kill the contest off for good in the 68thminute with an off-target kick, and with Saints then penalised in their turn, Humphreys kicked long into touch to make his side a good 50 metres. The crucial line-out was lost, however, and with it seemed to evaporate any hope of an Ulster comeback.
Another lineout on 74 minutes looked promising, but ferocious tackling from Northampton in midfield contained the men in white as the clock ran down, and Dickson wasted no time in kicking into touch as soon as the 80 minutes had been reached.
Full-Time Score Northampton 23 Ulster 13
(15 - 9) B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler, L Dickson
(1 - 8) S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (c), B Mujati, C Lawes, C Day, P Dowson, T Wood, R Wilson
Replacements (16 - 23) B Sharman, A Waller, T Mercey, M Sorenson, C Clark, S Commins, S Geraghty, B Reihana
(15 - 9) A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best (c), BJ Botha, J Muller, D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, P Wannenburg
Replacements (16 - 23) A Kyriacou, P McAllister, B Young, T Barker, W Faloon, P Marshall, I Whitten, C Gilroy
|Northampton Saints Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|