The Saints produced contrasting halves of rugby to see out pre-season, losing the first 40 minutes 24-0 but roaring back after the break to take the second half 19-5 at Ravenhill.
While it ultimately added up to a loss, an improved end to the game left for plenty to build on heading into next weekend’s Aviva Premiership opener with Bath at Franklin’s Gardens.
The home side monopolised early possession but for little reward and when the Ben Foden crafted the Saints’ first bright moment, his carving run was ended by a reckless, albeit not intentionally dangerous, tackle from Rodney Ah You.
The prop saw yellow for his troubles but saw his side hold on in the immediate aftermath, Ahsee Tuala’s acrobatic effort not quite keeping him infield in the left corner.
Ulster, in fact, did better than just survive. Having worked their way upfield with a series of penalties, Charles Piutau superbly rose for a cross kick and a simple exchange of passes put Louis Ludik over. Having fallen behind, things were about to get worse for the men in black, green and gold, too.
Centre Ludik scythed through a gap and while Louis Picmoles’ monster hit was legal, his challenge for the ball thereafter was not. The penalties racking up against the Saints told and the number 8 was shown the evening’s second yellow card, Robert Lyttle also firing over the three points.
Having created the game’s first try, Piutau was next on the scoresheet, crashing through the last line of defence after Paul Marshall’s quick tap and mazy run.
Pegged back territorialy, the Saints were almost solely on the defensive and when a penalty eventually came against them, it allowed Ulster to go to the corner. A well executed catch and drive ended with the evening’s third try for the home side and with Lyttle again on the money from the tee, the deficit had grown to a daunting 24 points.
Even when it looked as though Saints would end the half on the up, a loose ball was scooped up by Marshall, the scrum-half only denied a length of the field run-in thanks to an outstanding cover tackle from Foden.
It was a positive finish to the half that was quickly built on after the break, Saints upping the pace and looking dangerous. One attack fizzled out but they quickly returned, Luther Burrell punched holes through the middle and Alex Waller bulldozed over the top of two white shirts to finally open the visitors’ account.
They were finding their flow, Ken Pisi only just dragged down after Foden’s sublime inside flick. But just as quick as the Saints’ game was coming together, Ulster rediscovered theirs through the electric Piutau. The All Black hit a superb line in midfield at full tilt, ending his dart with a back of the hand offload to to Jacob Stockdale.
The Saints were soon back in the ascendency they had built though, knocking a penalty to the corner and battering away at the home line. While the forwards were kept at bay, the backs again sprung into action, zipping the ball out to Tom Collins for a second try of the evening.
Stephen Myler converted and, despite a raft of changes, the squeeze remained very much on Ulster. One of the new faces, Lewis Ludlam, applied the pressure that forced a turnover at the base of a home scrum and a second replacement, Juan Pablo Estelles, showed his sevens skills with a controlled pair of kicks through and a handy burst of pace to dot down the loose ball.
A second yellow card of the evening for Ulster looked like making for an exciting finish to proceedings, but despite a penalty to the corner and a couple of muscular charges from George Pisi, there was to be no further score.
13mins ULSTER Yellow Ah You
21mins ULSTER Try Ludik Con Lyttle 7-0
24mins SAINTS Yellow Picamoles
25mins ULSTER Pen Lyttle 10-0
28mins ULSTER Try Piutau Con Lyttle 17-0
38mins ULSTER Try Con Lyttle 24-0
HALF-TIME ULSTER 24 SAINTS 0
42mins SANTS Try Waller 24-5
54mins ULSTER Try Stockdale 29-5
56mins SAINTS Try Collins Con Myler 29-12
62min SAINTS Try Estelles Con Hanrahan 29-19
FULL-TIME ULSTER 29 SAINTS 19
Piutau; Stockade, Ludik, Mccluskey, Little; Herron, Marshall; Warwick, Herring (capt), Ah You, Browne, van der Merwe, Diack, Ross, Wilson
Andrew, Black, Kane, O’Connor, Joyce, Rea, Shanahan, Windsor, Busby, McPhillips, Best, Treadwell, Mulholland, Timoney
Foden; K Pisi, Burrell, Mallinder, Tuala; Myler, Dickson; A Waller, Hartley, Brookes, Paterson, Craig, Wood (capt), Gibson, Picamoles
Ma’afu, Haywood, Hill, Lawes, Onojaife, Marshall, Ludlam, Dickinson, Groom, Hanrahan, Packman, G Pisi, Estelles, Collins, Furbank