Ulster pay a heavy price for mistakes
Ulster's Heineken Cup dream is over for this year. Yesterday afternoon at a sun-kissed stadium:mk they were beaten by opponents whose brawn ultimately made the difference.
Northampton Saints have an awesome scrum, their line-out is sound, Courtney Lawes was immense, and they have a maul which wears opponents down.
But 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 Saints 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. 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.
Ulster opened nervously, 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 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 their first points on the board with a superb seventh-minute penalty from between half-way and the 10-metre line and that raised spirits visibly, but did not spell the end of their errors.
However, the Saints were guilty of mistakes too and Humphreys punished them 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, their power was to be enough.
The tackling was ferocious, with Ulster refusing to be intimidated. 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 and skipper Rory Best and tight-head BJ Botha were never far from it either.
As the first half wore on, Ulster grew stronger. A 30th-minute penalty miss by Myler lifted their spirits and two minutes later they moved into the lead from a well-worked try by Trimble. After sustained pressure, carefully recycled ball and controlled aggression, Best passed delightfully back inside to Trimble, who timed his run and line perfectly. Humphreys converted and Ulster were in the driving seat leading 13-7.
Their set pieces were good and they denied 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.
Suddenly Northampton were bossing the game and growing in confidence. Ulster 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.
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 guaranteed a score had it been held.
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 in the 10 minutes which remained.
There was one silver lining for Ulster with Stephen Ferris coming through knee surgery on Saturday and confirming he should be back in action between four and six weeks.
Northampton -- B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha ( A Waller 74) , D Hartley (B Sharman 79), B Mujati (T Mercy 80); C Lawes, C Day; P Dowson (C Clark 79), T Wood, R Wilson.
Ulster -- A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli (C Gilroy 73); I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, BJ Botha (P McAlister 70); J Muller (I Whitten 79), D Tuohy (T Barker 57); R Diack (W Faloon 63), C Henry, P Wannenburg.
Ref -- R Poite (Fra)