Tommy Freeman’s first-half double was not enough to prevent Northampton Saints exiting the European Challenge Cup at the hands of Ulster after a nine-try thriller at Franklin’s Gardens.
The men in Black, Green and Gold were ahead after a chaotic first-half of this quarter-final, surviving three yellow cards but leading 22-14 thanks to an Alex Mitchell snipe and two Freeman scores in the space of sixty seconds – the latter a length-of-the-field stunner.
The back-and-forth nature of the contest continued in the second 40 as Ollie Sleightholme added to Saints’ lead, but Ulster began to shift the momentum by looking for territory and two tries in the final quarter ultimately allowed the visitors to progress to the final four.
The game was preceded by two minutes of silence in memory of HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Once play started, Saints hit the front in the fifth minute. Teimana Harrison seized the attacking momentum with a powerful carry into the 22, before Dave Ribbans and Taqele Naiyaravoro followed with quick carries to get to within inches of the line.
With the Ulster defence slow to react, Mitchell spotted a gap to dive over for a close-range score, which Francis converted for a 7-0 lead, although the try came at a cost as Naiyaravoro was forced off for a HIA and did not return.
Then came a period of ill-discipline that allowed Ulster a foothold into the game. First, Nick Isiekwe was sent to the bin for a no-arms tackle on Billy Burns. He was joined shortly after by Sam Matavesi when he collapsed a maul close to the line, an infringement that levelled the scores when referee Alexandre Ruiz also awarded the visitors a penalty try.
There was a brief moment of respite when a Marty Moore tackle off the ball allowed Francis to nudge Saints back into the lead.
But as Isiekwe returned to the fray, repeated infringements inside the 22 saw Ribbans brandished a third yellow card of the evening almost immediately after.
Freeman’s brilliant try-saving tackle on Robert Baloucoune dislodged the ball as the Ulster wing dashed towards the line, but the numerical advantage and pressure in the 22 eventually told as Rob Herring burrowed his way over at the back of a rumbling maul. John Cooney’s conversion opened up a 10-14 lead.
Ulster had the most successful lineout in the Pro14 this year, and despite using the set-piece for both of their scores, it was a mistake from hooker Herring that allowed Saints to retake the lead. His crooked throw gifted a platform inside the Ulster 22, and after a few phases close to the line, Dan Biggar picked a perfect pass to send Freeman over in the corner.
Francis missed the conversion as Ribbans’ sin-bin expired, but nonetheless Saints had managed to win the period where they were shown three yellow cards by eight points to seven.
Off the restart from the Freeman score, Harrison again punched a hole up the middle to break out of the 22 before offloading to the trailing Mitchell.
He saw the run of Freeman on the outside as he approached halfway, and the young fullback simply had too much gas to break to the line, scoring his second less than sixty seconds after the first. This time Francis slotted the conversion to open up an eight-point gap.
John Cooney had a chance to narrow the deficit with the last kick of the half, but his miss left the score at the break as 22-14 in Saints’ favour.
A combination of Sleightholme, Biggar and Harrison held up Jacob Stockdale well early in the second half, but off the scrum Ulster forced their way over the line again, as this time Moore grounded and Cooney narrowed the gap to a single point with his successful conversion.
Saints scored next however as Sleightholme glided over in the corner for their fourth of the evening. A brilliant Ahsee Tuala carry and offload had sucked in the wide defence to open up the space for the wing to continue his try-scoring run.
The margin was 27-21 heading into the final quarter, but the topsy-turvy contest was far from over and Ulster responded again with a go-ahead score.
A clever short lineout throw to Alan O’Connor allowed the second row to gallop off into the 22, where the play was finished off by a Cooney pick-and-go. He converted his own score to put the visitors into a one-point lead.
As Ulster sought to add to their lead, up stepped Lewis Ludlam to win a relieving breakdown penalty, but the respite was only temporary. After being denied a try earlier in the half, Stockdale managed to get his score when running a short line through a gap off a pass from Burns to seal the win.
Saints now refocus on league action with the visit of London Irish next Friday night to Franklin’s Gardens on the horizon.