A dominant second half performance from Ulster secured a spot in the Challenge Cup semi finals with a five try win over Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens.
Rob Herring, John Cooney, Marty Moore and Jacob Stockdale crossed the whitewash while referee Alexandre Ruiz marched under the sticks, awarding Ulster’s first score of the night through a penalty try.
Northampton (22) 27
TRY: Alex Mitchell, Tommy Freeman (2), Ollie Sleightholme
CON: Piers Francis (2)
PEN: Piers Francis
Ulster (14) 35
TRY: Penalty Try, Rob Herring, John Cooney, Marty Moore, Jacob Stockdale
CON: John Cooney (4)
Trailing by eight points at half time to a side who were on the receiving end of three yellow cards, Ulster’s forwards stepped up to the plate in the second half producing a fantastic display of ball carrying and retention which flipped the game on its head and Stockdale sealed an eight point win for Dan McFarland’s side.
Northampton Saints were decent in the first half but were hampered by ill-discipline allowing Billy Burns to kick Ulster up the pitch. Ulster struggled to deal with the threat of Teimana Harrison with the ball in hand, evident in the build up to their opening try when he ran through James Hume and Stockdale.
Nick Isiekwe was sent to the sin bin for a late hit with no arms on Burns before Sam Matevesi joined him minutes later when he illegally disrupted an Ulster maul that was bound for the try line. Ruiz marched under the posts to level the game.
Two men up, Ulster were able to make easy metres on the outside but continually failed to punish an infringing Saints side. The away side were wasteful and weren’t able to breach the scoreboard until both were back on the pitch. David Ribbans was the third to receive a yellow card and eventually Herring rumbled over.
Another ref would have let some of them infringements go with only a penalty sanction but it was correct for Ruiz to continue to yellow cards Saints for extremely cynical play. Ribbans’ card was the sixth the French ref has shown to Northampton in two weeks and all three this week were deserved.
Offensively, Ulster played a good game in the first half but mistakes – softened by Saints illegalities – prevented the away side from capitalising. Defensively there were a few problems. A passive line invited Saints to make ground with relative ease.
Moore bundled over at the start of the second half to retake the lead for Ulster but Saints answered through Ollie Sleightholme 12 minutes later. A moment of quick thinking and good tactical awareness from Alan O’Connor and Herring provided a good platform with Cooney scoring his 25th Ulster try in the same passage.
The final 13 minutes saw Ulster play some of their better rugbyin the match. They forced Saints into mistakes thanks to great line speed in defence and once they got the ball, carries from Andy Warwick, Nick Timoney, Stuart McCloskey, Hume and Kieran Treadwell were incisive. It wasn’t flashy but it was effective and got the job done for Ulster. Burns held the ball just long enough before putting Stockdale through the gap for the match winning score.
NORTHAMPTON: Tommy Freeman, Ollie Sleightholme, Rory Hutchinson, Piers Francis, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Dan Biggar, Alex Mitchell, Alex Waller, Samuel Matavesi, Paul Hill, David Ribbans, Alex Coles, Nick Isiekwe, Lewis Ludlam, Teimana Harrison. Replacements: Mike Haywood, Nick Auterac, Ehren Painter, Alex Moon, Tom Wood, Tom James, Ahsee Tuala, Fraser Dingwall.
ULSTER: Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney. Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Cormac Izuchukwu, Matthew Rea, Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan, Ethan McIlroy
Who stood out?
It cannot be understated how much of an impact the introduction of Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole and Matthew Rea made from the bench in the second half. O’Toole provided a turnover to seal the game while the ball carrying efforts from Warwick and Rea were crucial in the build up to Stockdale’s try.
Nick Timoney continued to shine at eight in the absence of Marcell Coetzee and it now looks like he’s nailing down that shirt ahead of next season. Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune were very good in the air while Jordi Murphy delivered another man of the match performance.
Where now for Ulster?
A semi final of course! Ulster will take on Leicester Tigers for a spot in the Challenge Cup final at the start of May with the English side having home advantage.
There will no doubt be one eye on that semi final while Ulster prepare to begin their Rainbow Cup campaign in two weeks time against Connacht, and I’ll be surprised if Dan McFarland goes fully loaded for that match. There is still uncertainty surrounding the competition.
Initially the plan was for the opening three rounds to be interpro derbies and then the cross border fixtures in the final rounds. The interpros will go ahead however the inclusion of the South African sides is in jeopardy due to COVID regulations set by the UK Government.