Northampton 22 Ulster 27
For all the talk that it is the United Rugby Championship’s Welsh brethren who one day aspire to be included in a British and Irish League, perhaps it is Dan McFarland’s Ulster who would be best served throwing their weight behind the notion.
They have, after all, now won 11 of their last 13 against English opposition, this latest triumph over Northampton Saints booking their place in the Champions Cup knock-outs for a third time in four seasons, and all with a game to spare too. Saturday’s visit from Clermont is now about nothing more than seeding.
Since McFarland took the helm in 2018, away-day victories in this competition have come with real regularity, six in all through the pool stages. Twice as many as they managed in the four years preceding the Englishman’s appointment. Yesterday in Franklin’s Gardens should go down as one of their better efforts.
If the narrative surrounding the defeat away to Gloucester last season was about those who were missing, yesterday was a game where the subsequent discourse will be dominated by a victory secured in spite of who was missing.
Rugby is an attritional game, and all teams will struggle with absentees, even when not in the middle of a pandemic, but there are times when it can feel as if John Cooney, Iain Henderson and Stuart McCloskey are the engine that drives Ulster forward.
To be without one is detrimental; to be without all three for such an important game was potentially catastrophic. And that’s before you add in the likes of Jacob Stockdale, Will Addison and Jordi Murphy.
In the place of such key cogs, it was Ulster’s young backs that came to the fore. While Ulster’s pack naturally deserve credit for going toe-to-toe with such a sizeable Saints unit, led well by Courtney Lawes, it was those in jerseys nine through 15 who really stole the show.
On his return from a nasty shoulder injury sustained in Clermont last month, Robert Baloucoune caught the eye, with the Enniskillen native setting Ulster on their way with an assured finish in the corner in the early minutes.
He’d have a big hand in two of their subsequent three scores as well, showing an awareness beyond his years to perfectly delay the passes that would create the openings for Nathan Doak and Mike Lowry to go haring across the whitewash.
It was the latter who picked up the ‘star of the match’ accolade in a performance that will have his supporters wondering if he could be something of a bolter when Andy Farrell names his Six Nations squad.
There remains a debate about whether the 23-year-old is best deployed at 10 or 15 and, as important a position as stand-off is to any side, this was another display that showed his tantalising potential as a full-back.
Stewart Moore had a strong game filling in for McCloskey too, while James Hume offered the consistent excellence that has come to be expected of the outside centre.
“Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got a long way to go,” said Dan McFarland of his bevy of emerging home-grown talent. “These guys are far from the finished article and they’ll get much, much better and they’ll get that through experience.
“But in terms of the talent they have and the desire to improve on a week-to-week basis, it’s very exciting. Mikey Lowry’s the man of the match, and everyone’s talking about how good Robert Baloucoune is too. Rob’s been recognised by Andy Farrell, and Mikey Lowry’s in that conversation (too).
“I’ve chatted to Andy about Ethan McIlroy and how good he is.
“Obviously Rob got some of the plaudits (here) and Mikey got man of the match, but Ethan has been absolutely tremendous for us.
“He’s got one of the most deadly side-steps that certainly I’ve seen within our squad. They’re just really good players.”
Northampton Saints: G Furbank; C Skosan, T Litchfield, R Hutchinson, T Collins; D Biggar (T Freeman 67), A Mitchell (T James 76); A Waller (E Iyogun 60), S Matavesi (J Fish 71), E Painter (K Garside 71); D Ribbans, B Nansen (A Ratuniyrawa 40); C Lawes (A Coles 64), L Ludlam, T Harrison (J Augustus 56).
Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy; B Burns (I Madigan 56), N Doak (D Shanahan 58); A Warwick (E O’Sullivan 15), R Herring, M Moore (T O’Toole 58); A O’Connor (S Carter 58), K Treadwell; M Rea (G Jones 67), N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Ref: P Brousset (France).