Handling errors are Ulster's downfall
Ulster 9 Northampton 10: With Ulster’s unprecedented unbeaten 13-match winning run having ended on Saturday night at a packed Ravenhill, the job of picking up the pieces began straight after the final whistle.
And there were plenty of pieces.
Tommy Bowe was stretchered off in the 78th minute and the winger’s fellow-Irish international, lock Dan Touhy, suffered a calf injury in the final scrum of a hugely frustrating night.
Just as had been the case eight days earlier at Franklin’s Gardens it was the visiting players who displayed the greater hunger and will to win. But while that undoubtedly played a part in Ulster’s first defeat of the season, undoubtedly the greater damage came from self-inflicted wounds.
Mark Anscombe’s men, who had been so intense, so relentless so accurate, so precise and so clinical in the sides’ first meeting, never matched those levels at the second time of asking.
Though never a great spectacle in rugby terms, Saturday night’s re-match was intriguing simply because it was so close.
That’s what kept it interesting, for although Northampton led from the seventh minute, the outcome could have gone either way.
They did not score a point after Stephen Myler’s conversion of Gerrit Jan van Vetze’s 18th minute try.
With Myler having scored that early penalty, Ulster were 10-0 down before the end of the first quarter.
They managed to trim the deficit to four points courtesy of a brace of Paddy Jackson penalties in the 31st and 39th minutes.
And when he added his third from four attempts with a mere two minutes of the second half gone, taking Ulster to within a point of parity, the Ravenhill faithful sat back in expectation of improvement and victory.
And why not? After all, with almost the entire second half to go, the hosts held the aces in the form of a deeply embedded winning mentality, the assistance of the breeze, the support of the overwhelming majority of the capacity crowd and the huge psychological advantage of having taken the Saints apart such a short time earlier.
But these were not the same Saints. Jim Mallinder made big changes to the side which had started eight days before and each of them worked.
Myler and his half-back partner Lee Dickson looked an altogether better partnership than had Ryan Lamb and Martin Roberts.
The Northampton front row certainly did not suffer from the suspension of England hooker Dylan Hartley, or the relegation of tight-head Brian Mujati to the bench.
Mike Haywood was outstanding at two, ditto Paul Doran-Jones at three.
Calum Clark for Courtney Lawes was vindicated, too, as was switching Tom Wood from seven to six and starting Phil Dowson on the openside and, in addition, making him captain in Hartley’s absence. He was magnificent.
Afterwards Mallinder made a point of making the point: “That proved we can win matches without Dylan Hartley.”
Ulster were minus just one of the heroes of Franklin’s Gardens, but the loss of Johann Muller proved massive.
Quite apart from what he gives to the set-pieces, it was the leadership he brings that was sorely missed.
Yes, Ulster have other leaders — and good ones at that. But somehow they do not quite manage to get things to gel the way Muller does.
Sitting yards from him, you could almost feel his frustration and disappointment as Ulster continued to make mistakes.
I do not believe there was any complacency on the part of Ulster players. No, it was just one of those nights when — in stark contrast to the previous meeting where everything Ulster tried, worked — nothing came off.
Whereas at Franklin’s Gardens they made light of less possession and territory — Saints enjoyed 70% of both on that occasion — they were unable to do so this time, even though the percentages were better than on December 7.
Ulster had a lot going their way this time; they made more metres (449 to 229), twice as many line breaks (4-2), beat more defenders (17-11) and had more offloads (15-6).
They made more tackles — 103-70, with Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and John Afoa leading the way — and their tackle success rate was greater, too (90% to 80%).
But once more they were eclipsed in scrum and line-out. And in the really crucial area — turnovers conceded — they were guilty on 17 occasions. Last week they dominated that critical facet. This time, they were thwarted.
They certainly missed Henderson’s contribution in forcing turnovers, for having been switched from blindside to lock in Muller’s absence his role in that respect was more limited.
In truth, by virtue of the number of mistakes they made Ulster beat themselves.
But the really frustrating reality it that even though they did not play anything like as well as they can, try-scoring chances were squandered on at least three occasions. At this level, that is costly.