Injury to captain Johann Muller in last week's Round Three match had meant an enforced positional change for this evening's game, with Iain Henderson slotting in at lock after his back row role at Franklin's Gardens, while Nick Williams assumed the number six jersey in his place.
With a point to prove after leaking four tries at home last Friday, Saints made much the brighter start, and an overthrow at the Ulster lineout on five minutes put the hosts under extreme pressure, from which they were fortunate to escape only three points adrift after Stephen Myler's central penalty. However the strength of the Ulster pack was soon to tell, and a turnover at a ninth-minute Northampton maul led to a promising left-wing raid which only broke down metres from the line courtesy of a dropped ball from Heineken Cup demi-centurion Andrew Trimble.
Superior communication at the lineout was instrumental in Saints' next big surge, but the ever-assiduous Ulster defence soaked up several minutes' pressure before being able to clear. Saints came straight back, however, and this time Number Eight van Velze forced his way over the whitewash wide on the right flank after pinpoint passing between the English backs. Myler's conversion made it Ulster 0 Northampton 10 on 20 minutes.
Then a smart charge-down from Williams on half-way, followed by strong ball-carrying from Rory Best, raised the Ravenhill decibel level several notches, and Jackson kicked over his first points of the match from the Northampton '22' on the half hour mark, bringing his personal European tally to 43 for the campaign. This was followed by a second break from deep by Williams and, despite great acceleration onto the pass from Bowe, and quicksilver passing to the Ulster reinforcements on the left flank, another knock-on at the crucial stage stymied the attack.
Jackson failed to claim another three points with a marginally-wide penalty attempt on 35 minutes, but atoned for the miss three minutes later, with Saints' halos evidently beginning to slip as Ulster turned the screw in the run-up to the break.
Half-Time Score Ulster 6 Northampton Saints 10
With Tom Court pinching possession straight from Jackson's second-half restart, Ulster probed deep into the Northampton half, and another infringement gave Jackson office to slot over from the '22' and bring his side to within one point of parity. However, Saints, putting on a much more dynamic display than they had eight days before, dominated possession and territory as the match reached the 50-minute mark, and only just ran out of terrain in two successive attacks on either flank.
Then the tide turned momentarily, as Trimble expertly claimed a high ball, and withstood several challenges before referee Nigel Owens blew for a high tackle around the winger's neck. With the ball lying in Ulster's half, long-range expert Ruan Pienaar assumed kicking duties, but watched powerless as his attempt fell narrowly shy of the posts.
Craig Gilroy and Paul Marshall replaced Trimble and Jackson on the hour, and moments later the video referee was called into action as the Ulster forwards piled over the line ball in hand after good play at the line-out. The replay proved inconclusive however, and the opportunity went begging as Ulster infringed at the subsequent five-metre scrum.
Gilroy soon made his presence felt with a penetrating run which cut through the Northampton midfield, but another handling error, this time from Williams, put paid to the move a handful of passes later. Then, as Myler shaped to attempt a drop goal at the other end with the clock moving into the final 10 minutes, Pienaar alertly charged down and supplied the recently-entered Luke Marshall. Ulster moved upfield at pace, but again were unfortunate as Jared Payne was pulled up for holding on to the ball too long in the tackle within the Northampton '22'.
With three minutes remaining on the clock, a forceful collision saw Bowe stretchered off with what looked a serious leg injury, and Ulster's hopes evaporated as Pienaar missed with a penalty from the right-hand flank, which, had it been dispatched, would have put them ahead for the first time in the encounter. Saints then slowed play down to the final whistle, and Ulster had to settle for a losing bonus point which sees them stay atop Group Four, with 15 points from four matches played.
Full-Time Score Ulster 9 Northampton Saints 10
(15 - 9) J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best, J Afoa, I Henderson, D Tuohy, N Williams, C Henry (c), R Wilson
Replacements (16 - 23) N Brady, C Black, R Lutton, N McComb, R Diack, P Marshall, L Marshall, C Gilroy
(15 - 9) B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, T May, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson
(1 - 8) S Tonga'uiha, M Haywood, P Doran-Jones, S Manoa, C Clark, T Wood, P Dowson (c), G-J van Velze
Replacements (16 - 23) R McMillan, A Waller, B Mujati, M Sorenson, C Lawes, M Roberts, R Lamb, L Burrell
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Northampton Saints Score Card|
|Gerrit-Jan van Velze||1||5|