Heineken Cup: Ulster's dream ended by Northampton Saints
Northampton 23 Ulster 13: Ulster’s 2011 Heineken Cup dream is over. Yesterday afternoon at a sun-kissed stadium:mk they were beaten by opponents whose brawn ultimately was the difference between the sides.
Northampton Saints have an awesome scrum, their line-out is sound — Courtney Lawes was immense in there — and they have a maul which wears opponents down.
Ulster contributed to their own downfall, with 17 of Northampton’s 23 points attributable to avoidable errors. The Saints made the most of those lapses, punishing Ulster on the scoreboard.
Having led 13-10 at half-time, Ulster failed to score a point in the second-half during which the screw tightened. Slowly they were strangled as Northampton, like some great green, black and gold boa constrictor, squeezed the life from them.
History did not weigh in Ulster’s favour; 11 of the previous 13 Heineken Cup matches they had played on English soil had ended in defeat. To that add the fact that of the competition’s 58 quarter-finals prior to yesterday afternoon’s showdown, only 13 had yielded victory for a visiting side.
Nevertheless Ulster went into it much encouraged by what they had seen Leinster do to Aviva Premiership leaders, Leicester Tigers the previous night.
Ulster opened nervously, however, with a typically aggressive maul from the kick-off giving Northampton an early boost. They promptly got another when Andrew Trimble spilled a high ball and that gave rise to a pressure which yielded the opening try in the third minute.
Man mountain loose head Soane Tonga’uiha was the scorer, his strength enabling him to get over from close range. Stephen Myler added the extras and Ulster trailed 7-0.
Ian Humphreys put Ulster’s first points of the day on the board with a superb seventh minute penalty from between half-way and the 10-metres line and that raised spirits visibly, albeit that it did not spell the end of the errors.
They were plentiful, with the Saints guilty, too. Indeed they were responsible for the next significant one, with Humphreys punishing them for it with another perfectly judged penalty which made it 7-6 with 15 minutes gone.
At times it was like watching Sevens, such was the pace of the game. The mistakes continued, interspersed by moments of very good rugby with Ulster playing most of it.
Northampton were limited and lacked subtlety. In the end, however, that sheer power was to be enough.
The tackling was ferocious, with Ulster refusing to be intimidated by their rivals’ aggression. As often as not they gave as good as they got; Pedrie Wannenburg was immense, ditto his back row colleague Chris Henry. Locks Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy were not found wanting in the heat of the fire and skipper Rory Best and tighthead BJ Botha were never far away either.
As the first-half wore on, Ulster grew stronger. A 30th minute penalty miss by Myler lifted their spirits anew and two minutes later they moved into the lead from a well-worked try by Trimble.
That rounded off a period of sustained pressure, carefully recycled ball and controlled aggression which ended with Best passing delightfully back inside to the winger who timed his run and line perfectly. Humphreys converted and Ulster led 13-7.
Their set pieces were good and they were denying Northampton the mauling on which they are so dependent, but on the stroke of half-time they conceded a soft penalty following a Humphreys fumble — another costly error — and Myler cut the deficit to just three points.
The third quarter was the turning point. Northampton returned with a new intensity and that coincided with Ulster’s performance dropping fractionally. Those elements produced a change in the mood on the pitch and the stands.
Suddenly Northampton were bossing the game and growing in confidence. Ulster, as a result, were under pressure, conceding penalties. Myler nailed one of those in the 48th minute to level the scores at 13-13 and eight minutes later the Saints moved ahead.
It followed a poor decision by Adam D’Arcy whose ill-advised kick found his opposite number Ben Foden. The England full-back made 60 metres and although he was stopped, scrum-half Lee Dickson got through in the passage which followed.
Myler’s conversion left Ulster trailing 20-13 and they promptly fluffed a great chance to equalise with D’Arcy spilling the ball close to the line when Simon Danielli was virtually guaranteed a score had it been held. Such are the margins at this level.
Myler’s fourth penalty of the day — and his 1,000th point in his Northampton career — was the final score, with Ulster unable to make in-roads into the 23-13 deficit in the final 10 minutes.