As the biggest crowd to descend upon BT6 for almost two years made their way into the ground for Ulster against Northampton, ‘Road to Nowhere’ was pumped out in the stadium bars.
An apt enough selection given the Covid-19 chaos that feels as if it has left European rugby on a knife-edge this season, but on this evidence Ulster will be hoping against hope that the Champions Cup gets played out to its inclusion.
The first of only five games to survive pandemic-related postponement this weekend saw the northern province back up last week’s noteworthy win away to Clermont with a bonus-point victory on their own patch.
Three tries early on had seemed to put Ulster in a good place to wrap things up sharpish in their final hit-out before Christmas but they had to wait until the hour to get the crucial fourth score.
While there was more than an element of fortune about how it came through Craig Gilroy, the Saints making a horrible error in the build-up, this was in truth a game that never felt as close as the final score suggested and the hosts were good value for their full-point haul.
The game was only three minutes old when already it looked set to be their day. From the moment Saints returned the kick-off into the arms of Gilroy, they wouldn’t see the ball again until Ulster were in a 7-0 lead.
Mike Lowry and James Hume both made breaks using their fleet footwork but otherwise it was the hosts carrying the ball into the teeth of the Premiership side’s defence and winning the crucial collisions.
Saints, though, will be far from happy with how easy it was for Rob Herring to go under their posts.
A quick-fire penalty in response from George Furbank reduced the lead to 7-3 but a beautifully judged 50:22 from Lowry set Ulster on the attack again.
No confusion over the still relatively new law in Ravenhill as every bounce of the ball was cheered by the near capacity crowd as it ambled towards touch to give Ulster the put-in.
After Saints infringed at the subsequent maul, the province went for the corner again. When Herring offloaded from the base to Cooney, a try seemed certain with Gilroy lurking out wide and when Alex Mitchell slapped the ball to the ground, the referee Andrea Piardi was left with no choice but to award the penalty try and send the Saints scrum-half to the sin-bin.
Again, Furbank answered with a penalty, this time when Ulster were caught not releasing in the tackle, but again Ulster came back with a score.
Lowry’s 50:22 didn’t quite meet the mark this time but when Saints kicked loosely back, Hume opted for the chip and chase.
Exploiting the acres made available in the back-field, the centre couldn’t quite gather his own prod through but the alert McIlroy had sprinted off his wing. Leaving Courtnall Skosan for dead with a pronounced step, all that was left to settle was whether the chasing Ollie Sleighthome could catch him.
While he got their in the end, it was not in time to stop McIlroy from wriggling across.
Cooney’s conversion came back off the upright and, as was now the game’s established pattern Dingwall kicked three points soon after, but Ulster sensed a change to put this one away early but a miscommunication at the line-out ensured they’d have to wait to the second-half for the bonus-point try.
The loss of Stuart McCloskey to injury had certainly robbed the side of some of their ability to pierce holes in the Northampton defence but Cooney nudged them back into a more comfortable ten-point lead with five minutes gone after the turn.
Saints were still offering little in attack but as the opportunities in the opposition ‘22’ mounted without that all-important fourth score tension started to creep into the stadium.
A pair of turnovers, in between which returning skipper Iain Henderson limped down the tunnel, didn’t help matters but with Nick Timoney and Marcus Rea increasingly to the fore, the pressure eventually paid off.
After Billy Burns had stuck a grubber down into the corner, the Saints fumbled the resulting line-out forward.
They compounded the error as an all-changed front-row coughed up a penalty from the resulting scrum and, after Ulster went for the corner, were pinged at the line-out too.
All in the ground were surely expecting the ball to be sent back to the corner for another maul rumble when Billy Burns optimistically hoisted the ball to the corner but opposing full-back Ahsee Tuala horribly misjudged the ball in flight.
With Craig Gilroy lurking in behind, the Ulster wing will likely never score a simpler try.
Still, regardless of how it came, it was an important one and with bonus-point secure the job was almost done.
Three scores ahead with 20 minutes to play, Ulster did quickly concede a try for the first time in the evening, Alex Mitchell going over from close range but the visitors never looked likely to make things truly close, less likely still to repeat their win on this ground of December 2012.
Even when Skosan followed him across the whitewash with some 90 seconds left, Ulster always had matters in hand and they will go into their nine-day turnaround before facing Connacht on Boxing Day feeling they’ve answered a few questions of themselves.
Backing up last week’s big win in Clermont felt an imperative after the recent highs and lows of Leinster and Ospreys and, no matter what way Europe falls in January, Ulster know they’ll be in the shake-up for the knock-outs.
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