Fighting back from a 13-point first-half deficit, Northampton Saints took a losing bonus point away from the Kingspan Stadium after they finished just a score short of Ulster Rugby in the second round of Heineken Champions Cup.
George Furbank’s boot kept the men in Black, Green and Gold in touch at 19-12 after a first half where the Irish province scored three times, with the fly-half knocking four penalties from four attempts straight through the uprights.
A penalty from the boot of John Cooney after the break added to a try from Craig Gilroy to stretch Ulster's lead 15 points on the hour mark; but Saints hit back instantly as Alex Mitchell sniped over from close range before the away side sent Courtnall Skosan over out wide with two minutes left on the clock.
But the time was against Chris Boyd's men in Belfast, and Ulster held out to claim the 27-22 victory at the Kingspan and send Saints home with just the bonus point.
The hosts made a fast start as they patiently built the phases inside the opening couple of minutes before Billy Burns sent Rob Herring through an gap and under the posts from short range.
Cooney made no mistake with the routine conversion, but Northampton responded well with some smart interplay inside the Ulster half, and were rewarded with a penalty just to the left of the posts – which Furbank duly knocked over.
Saints made some good territory once more but a 50-22 kick from Michael Lowry changed the momentum and woke up the crowd, with Ulster then earning a penalty from the lineout which Burns stuck in the corner.
That brought trouble for Northampton as Alex Mitchell, attempting to intercept a pass on his own line, could not gather and was penalised for a deliberate knock-on – that saw Ulster awarded a penalty try and the scrum-half sent to the sin bin for ten minutes.
Just two minutes later however another slick passing move resulted in another breakdown penalty for Saints, allowing Furbank to eat up some of the clock and reduce the deficit to 14-6.
Ulster struck again with 20 minutes played as James Hume’s chip over the top bounced kindly for Ethan McIlroy, and while Ollie Sleightholme came so close to hauling him down inches from the line, the winger’s momentum carried him over.
Cooney’s conversion hit the post, however, and Furbank then punished Ulster with two more penalties before the break to keep Saints within a score at 19-12 down, with Ahsee Tuala being replaced by Rory Hutchinson at fullback for a temporary HIA before the clock ticked into the red.
Four minutes into the second half, Saints were penalised for holding on in front of their own posts, with Cooney stretching the lead out to ten points.
Northampton freshened up the pack before the hour mark, with Emmanuel Iyogun, James Fish, Conor Carey and Juarno Augustus all entering the action, but there was nothing they could do to prevent Craig Gilroy scooping up a loose ball from Burns’ cross-field kick to secure the hosts’ bonus point try.
But Saints were not done yet and Mitchell scrambled over from close range to give his side hope, although for the first time this evening, Furbank was wayward from the kicking tee as his conversion attempt from the touchline drifted wide.
At 27-17 down, Northampton needed the next score to fall their way, and some dogged defence across the field kept Ulster at bay on 65 minutes after the hosts earned some territory with an obstruction penalty against Mitchell.
Saints got a rumble on with a maul with six minutes remaining, but stern defence from the hosts forced a knock-on from the visitors who coughed up possession. A stray lineout throw and a breakdown penalty frustrated Saints further but a turnover put Northampton back on the front foot and a drifting run from Mitchell saw him slip past three defenders before sending the ball wide to see Skosan over the whitewash.
Furbank couldn't add the extras from the touchline, and with less than two minutes left on the clock, time was against Boyd's men; although Saints clawed forwards off the restart, another breakdown penalty gave Cooney the chance to send the ball into the stands and see Northampton leave Belfast with a losing bonus point.