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Ulster’s Cup Dreams Dashed By Northampton

Ulster’s Cup Dreams Dashed By Northampton

Ulster put in a brave showing before bowing out of the Heineken Cup to Northampton Saints. Brian McLaughlin’s men lost their grip on a 13-7 lead in a hotly-contested encounter in Milton Keynes.

Northampton were forced to dig deep before subduing Ulster in an intense quarter-final tussle at stadium:mk.

The decisive try was delivered by home scrum half Lee Dickson in the 55th minute. Chris Ashton and Ben Foden swapped passes down the left touchline to clear a path to the whitewash that enabled Saints to reclaim the lead.

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Prop Soane Tonga’uiha had crossed for an opportunist third minute try, while out-half Stephen Myler kicked 13 points to secure Northampton’s return to Milton Keynes for their semi-final against Perpignan.

The tide turned with Dickson’s try, but up until that point Ulster had matched their English hosts blow for blow in an absorbing match.

Roared on by 5,500 supporters in the stadium:mk record crowd of 21,309, the Ulstermen reacted wonderfully to conceding an early lead by working winger Andrew Trimble over for a try by the posts.

With Simon Danielli a menacing presence on the other wing and Ian Humphreys, who kicked eight points, pulling the strings at out-half, Ulster looked capable of causing an upset.

Had full-back Adam D’Arcy not dropped the ball with the try-line at his mercy shortly after Dickson had crossed, it may have been a different story.

But instead, Brian McLaughlin’s charges were held scoreless in the second half as their first visit to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup since winning the tournament in 1999 ended in heartache.

Ulster made a nervy start and Trimble’s spilt catch inside the visitors’ 22 put them under immediate pressure. Seizing the chance to draw first blood, Northampton won a free-kick at the ensuing scrum with Dickson driving to within inches of the whitewash.

Several thrusts later, Tonga’uiha spotted Ulster were short on numbers at the ruck and drove straight through the middle, stretching over to score despite the presence of Tom Court and Chris Henry.

The match resumed at a punishing pace after Myler had landed the conversion, with both sides tearing into the collisions.

Humphreys kicked two penalties in quick succession to settle the province. Ulster went close to adding a try of their own, but Humphreys’ try-scoring pass to Danielli was deemed forward by referee Romain Poite.

The hosts threatened when Ashton created space for Dubliner James Downey before the action was temporarily interrupted by an exchange of aerial ping pong.

The kicking over, Saints resumed their assault on the whitewash with prop Brian Mujati spilling forward as he attempted to power through a group of white shirts.

Ulster’s defence was strong and Jim Mallinder’s charges were struggling to secure quick ball, their frustration growing when Myler missed a penalty.

It was then Northampton’s turn to crack with Danielli doing the initial damage when a set move sent him hurtling into space.

One phase later Ulster had an overlap with backs facing forwards, but appeared to have blown the chance when Ruan Pienaar’s pass dribbled along the ground.

The move continued, however, and Trimble was on hand to take Rory Best’s inside pass and race over for a try that Humphreys converted.

Myler kicked his first penalty on the stroke of half-time to peg the deficit back to 13-10, and it was anyone’s game as the whole stadium drew breath.

Northampton levelled through Myler nine minutes into the second half, ratcheting up the tension of a match which looked impossible to call.

Just when they needed it most, Northampton conjured the piece of magic required to reclaim the lead just short of the hour mark.

Dickson ran in the try, but it was the slick interchange and clever support play of Ashton and Foden created the opportunity with Downey supplying the final pass.

Barely had Myler converted before Ulster were on the front foot in a passage of play they will live to regret.

Firstly, Humphreys was held up inches short of the line and then, having won a penalty and looked wide, D’Arcy knocked on when a try was on the cards to the left of the posts.

To rub salt into the wound, Myler booted a penalty and Northampton, with their pack to the fore, strangled the life out of what was left of the game.

Speaking after Ulster’s first defeat in seven games, hooker and captain Rory Best: “That was one of the most physically intense games I have ever played in with Ulster.

“We are very, very disappointed, especially the forwards because we let the game get away from us in the first 15 minutes of the second half.

“We dropped off a fraction and they put on the squeeze. It is fine margins between winning and losing at this level, but we came off the field wanting more of that kind of experience.

“It was a big step up from the pool stages and our domestic league, but that’s what we all want. We have to learn from this experience.

“It is no coincidence that the same teams keep cropping up in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals year in, year out. You have to learn how to take your chances when they come along.

“Saints didn’t let us breathe in the first 10 minutes and we couldn’t get to their lineout or maul. They are so good at what they do and you need a solid set piece to play against them.”

Proud of his players’ efforts over the European campaign, head coach Brian McLaughlin added: “I thought we took our eye off the ball at the set piece in the second half. But it was a huge learning curve for us and there is a hell of a lot more to come from this Ulster team.”