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Saints 20 – 24 Ulster: Northampton edged out again in Europe

Northampton Saints were narrowly beaten for the second time by Ulster Rugby in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup, going down 24-20 at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.

Ulster shaded the first meeting between the sides 27-22, and with the men in Black, Green and Gold looking to turn that result on its head, ten points from Dan Biggar kept them in touch at the break with Ulster crossing the whitewash three times to lead 19-10.

Biggar landed another penalty before Michael Lowry’s second try of the night handed the visitors what turned out to be an unassailable lead, despite Rory Hutchinson’s late score setting up a grandstand finish with just seconds of the contest remaining.

After a high-quality start from both sides, Saints produced a strong defensive set to repel wave after wave of Ulster attack and forced an error, but the loose ball bounced the way of Robert Baloucoune who scooped it up and finished in the corner.

Nathan Doak missed the conversion from out wide, but the scrum-half was in the thick of the action again shortly after.

Hutchinson’s chip over the top looked to have the Ulster defence on the back foot, but the ball went loose and Lowry’s mazy run created the space for Doak on his shoulder to score under the posts and this time convert his own score.

Brandon Nansen got Saints back on the front foot with a massive carry through the Ulster defensive line, but after Hutchinson’s pull back to George Furbank, the final pass just went past the outstretched arms of Courtney Lawes – playing in his 250th game for the Club.

Saints however had penalty advantage and Biggar took a straightforward three points from in front of the posts to get his side on the board.

And Northampton brought themselves right back into the contest with a try on 37 minutes; Biggar found Hutchinson on halfway, and the centre ghosted down the left wing before offloading to Tom Collins, who looked sure to be tackled into touch before he passed off the ground to Biggar. The Northampton fly-half finished off the move he started and converted to bring the hosts back within two points at 12-10.

But on the stroke of the break, Ulster extended their advantage after Billy Burns’ chip over the top bounced awkwardly, and Lowry gathered it to score under the posts – with the TMO confirming there had been no knock-on in the build-up.

Just after the interval, Hutchinson’s devilish grubber-kick forced a handling error from Ethan McIlroy, and from the subsequent scrum Saints built the phases before winning a penalty bang in front – allowing Biggar to bring them back within a score from the kicking tee.

Sam Matavesi and Lewis Ludlam won crucial turnovers inside their own 22 either side of the 50-minute mark, but Northampton were dealt a blow when Alex Mitchell saw yellow on 55 minutes after conceding a cynical penalty with Lowry close to scoring.

Tom Litchfield produced a crucial interception with his side’s backfield exposed as Ulster looked to make their extra man count, and as it looked as though Saints had weathered the storm, the visitors produced a try out of nothing with Baloucoune creating the space again in midfield and Lowry striding over for his second try of the match.

That put Northampton 11 points adrift, but there was hope late on as Hutchinson cut a lovely line to score with just seconds remaining on the clock, with Furbank converting quickly to ensure a restart.

But despite gathering the kick-off, Saints could not muster one final moment of magic to snatch a victory, with a knock-on ending the contest at Franklin’s Gardens.

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