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Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. A dejected Ruan Pienaar leaves the pitch after Ulster's  defeat.

Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. A dejected Ruan Pienaar leaves the pitch after Ulster's defeat.

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Lee Dickson of Saints celebrates scoring a try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Lee Dickson of Saints celebrates scoring a try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Richard Heathcote

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Johann Muller of Ulster and Courtney Lawes of Northampton have a disagreement during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Johann Muller of Ulster and Courtney Lawes of Northampton have a disagreement during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Warren Little

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  A lineout is contested during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: A lineout is contested during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Warren Little

Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. David and Nicola Selfrige

Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. David and Nicola Selfrige

Northampton Saints v Ulster Rugby, Heineken Cup. Fiona Craig and Matthew Mount

Northampton Saints v Ulster Rugby, Heineken Cup. Fiona Craig and Matthew Mount

Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. Alan Wayer

Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. Alan Wayer

Northampton's Soane Tonga'uiha reaches out to score their first try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final at Stadiummk, Milton Keynes

Northampton's Soane Tonga'uiha reaches out to score their first try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final at Stadiummk, Milton Keynes

David Davies

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Andrew Trimble of Ulster celebrates scoring a try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Andrew Trimble of Ulster celebrates scoring a try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Richard Heathcote

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Ben Foden of Northampton Saints is tackled by Ruan Pienaar of Ulster during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Ben Foden of Northampton Saints is tackled by Ruan Pienaar of Ulster during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Warren Little

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Soane Tonga'uiha of Northampton Saints stretches to score the opening try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Soane Tonga'uiha of Northampton Saints stretches to score the opening try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Warren Little

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Lee Dickson of Saints dives over to score a try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Lee Dickson of Saints dives over to score a try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Richard Heathcote

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Stephen Myler of Northampton Saints lines up a kick at goal during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Stephen Myler of Northampton Saints lines up a kick at goal during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Warren Little

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Ben Foden of Saints is tackled by Paddy Wallace and Pedrie Wannenburg of Ulster during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Ben Foden of Saints is tackled by Paddy Wallace and Pedrie Wannenburg of Ulster during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Richard Heathcote

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Pedrie Wannenburg of Ulster breaks through during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Pedrie Wannenburg of Ulster breaks through during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Richard Heathcote

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Andrew Trimble of Ulster scores a try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Andrew Trimble of Ulster scores a try during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Ulster at Stadium MK on April 10, 2011 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Richard Heathcote

Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. Matthew WIlson

Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. Matthew WIlson

Ulster fans enjoy their day at the Saints

Ulster fans enjoy their day at the Saints

Northampton Saints v Ulster. Andrew, Mike, Maria and Matthew Robison.

Northampton Saints v Ulster. Andrew, Mike, Maria and Matthew Robison.

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Northampton Saints v Ulster, Heineken Cup. A dejected Ruan Pienaar leaves the pitch after Ulster's defeat.

Some Ulster players bowed their heads when the final whistle blew. No need to lads. This was a day, even in defeat, to hold heads high.

Not just for a sterling performance in yesterday's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton, but for their efforts throughout an uplifting campaign.

Remember, before the pulsating clash in Milton Keynes, Ulster had not played a knockout match in Europe for 12 long years, so amongst the visiting fans who made the journey there was already a sense of pride.

Back in 1999, Ulster won the tournament under the shrewd guidance of Harry Williams, with David Humphreys pulling the strings, Andy Ward refusing to take a backward step and Simon Mason kicking score after score. Mason was so accurate he could have slotted a cabbage between the posts.

Then came over a decade of frustration and failure in Europe's toughest club competition.

After finally coming good in the group stages, there was hope that Brian McLaughlin's class of 2011 could repeat those heroic deeds of yesteryear and go on to claim another epic success.

While on the pitch Humphreys reigned supreme, off the pitch he's been an inspirational figure in helping build the impressive modern day Ulster squad.

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In his role as operations manager, he has recruited top class South Africans such as Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg.

And in turn, coach McLaughlin has shown the tactical nous and man management skills to combine the foreign influence with homegrown talent.

He has done a wonderful job, moulding the side into winners, and this without the brilliant Stephen Ferris for most of the season.

Ulster have become used to winning. Add that to the importance of yesterday's match and it's understandable why they were so distressed and disappointed to lose 23-13.

At half-time Ulster were ahead of the Saints and their host of high profile English stars.

It was a ferocious battle. The intensity levels were greater than most of the recent Six Nations matches.

It was thrilling to watch as players from both sides smashed into tackles and displayed some stunning ball handling skills.

There was no shortage of character either with Andrew Trimble recovering from a knock on, that led to an early Northampton try, to round off a sensational period of attacking play from Ulster with a fine try of his own — Rory Best's incisive pass sending the Ireland winger over.

If Trimble had an eventful afternoon, Ulster's other winger Simon Danielli excited every time he touched the ball while Pienaar continued his excellent recent form. A word too for the baby faced kid that is Nevin Spence. What a future in prospect for the gifted 20-year-old.

Big things are expected from full-back Adam D'Arcy in years to come too. Unfortunately he fumbled the ball when the line beckoned with Ulster ready to tie things up at 20-20.

It was one of those what might have been moments.

With that opportunity missed, Northampton, spurred on by awesome lock Courtney Lawes, took control. They didn't let go.

As always, captain Best gave an honest post match assessment saying Ulster have much to learn to move from the last eight to victors in the competition. But such is the desire and commitment to improve at Ravenhill these days, Ulster have what it takes both physically and mentally to return to this stage of the competition next year — and go further.

It may be the end of the road in the Heineken Cup this time, but Ulster fans should believe that this could be the beginning of something special after so many years in the wilderness at this level.

And while Ulster look forward to that, they should not forget they still have much to play for in the remainder of the season. Europe's gone, but they could still win the Magners League.


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