The Ulstermen came into the crucial tie bolstered by the return of numerous key figures, with all of the Autumn International absentees well-rested and available to start. Jared Payne, Paddy Wallace, Tommy Bowe and Ruan Pienaar all reclaimed their starting XV jerseys among the backs, while Tom Court, Rory Best, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry came in up front.
Ulster's impressive first-half display was all about consistency and concentration in every position on the field, with the two wingmen getting on the scoresheet thanks to intricately-worked interaction between the forwards and the backs.
An early penalty for Saints' outhalf Ryan Lamb - awarded after Henry had failed to roll away sufficiently quickly for referee Jerome Garces' liking - was off-target, and a searching kick from Payne on eight minutes, with the full-back chasing his own ball, put his opposite number Ben Foden under extreme pressure deep in his own '22', and forced him to concede touch. Ulster worked the lineout well, and outstanding distribution from the breakdown allowed Paddy Jackson to chip a kick into the left-hand corner, where Andrew Trimble outpaced a flat-footed Foden to ground the try. Jackson's conversion missed by the narrowest of margins, but Ulster confidence was soaring at Northampton 0 Ulster 5 on 10 minutes.
Lamb missed a second on 13 minutes - this time a seemingly elementary kick from 32 metres - and his counterpart Jackson did likewise three minutes later, albeit from a greater distance of 45 metres. The Northampton Number 10 finally steadied his nerves at the beginning of the second period, kicking over adeptly from just inside the Ulster half to open Saints' account, but it counted for little as Jackson nailed a penalty of his own three minutes later from just shy of the Northampton '22'.
Lamb's erratic run of kicking form continued as he missed with another penalty on 27 minutes - leaving him with a success rate of 25% - but hesitancy from Jackson when faced with a bouncing ball on his own line then gave the hosts a dangerous five-metre scrum. The Ulster scrum proved resilient, however, as they turned possession over, and, after a superb Payne clearance into the corner, and a crafty steal at the bungled Northampton lineout which followed, the visiting backs recycled and spread play expertly, allowing Bowe to eventually touch down by the right-hand corner flag courtesy of Wallace's final pass. Jackson was again off-target with the conversion, but the lead was strong to the tune of 10 points, at Northampton 3 Ulster 13.
Saints closed out the half deep inside the visitors' '22', and ran off at the break with three extra points for their travails, Lamb splitting the posts from 13 metres on the stroke of half-time.
Half-Time Score Northampton 6 Ulster 13
Ulster's start to the second period was equally dynamic, and the third try, on 45 minutes, was both started and finished by the in-form Payne. Safely catching the high clearance kick from Lamb, the Kiwi fed Court and continued to make ground, eventually recuperating possession from Pienaar inside the '22', before dummying the pass to Cave and cutting inside to elude Foden once more. Jackson converted from the tight angle, and although his penalty attempt moments later fell just short of the posts, his side led on 50 minutes at Northampton 6 Ulster 20.
With Johann Muller exiting at this stage due to a knock on the shoulder, Nick Williams took the field, but, as the match entered its final quarter, Ulster showed no lack of direction despite the loss of their captain, and could easily have registered try number four on the hour mark had it not been for a forward pass from Trimble as Wallace surged down the flank. The Northampton reaction finally came on 65 minutes, and Ulster were thankful to Pienaar for holding up Jamie Elliott behind the try-line after several minutes of intense pressure from the English forwards.
Finishing the match with 14 men after Henderson's yellow card for illegally slowing down play, Ulster regardless pushed for the bonus-point try in the final 10 minutes, and it came two minutes from time, Payne again instrumental as Ulster picked up a loose ball in midfield, and lightning-quick distribution from back to back finally allowed the Kiwi to supply Tuohy on the line. The lock lurched over to secure the four-try bonus, elevating Ulster to 14 points from three matches played, and issuing a stark warning to the Saints ahead of next Saturday's return fixture at Ravenhill.
Full-Time Score Northampton 6 Ulster 25
(15 - 9) B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, D Waldouck, J Elliott; R Lamb, M Roberts
(1 - 8) S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (c), B Mujati, S Manoa, C Lawes, C Clark, T Wood, G-J van Velze
Replacements (16 - 23) M Haywood, A Waller, P Doran-Jones, M Sorenson, P Dowson, L Dickson, S Myler, T May
(15 - 9) J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (c), D Tuohy, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson
Replacements (16 - 23) N Brady, C Black, R Lutton, R Diack, N Williams, P Marshall, L Marshall, C Gilroy
|Northampton Saints Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|