Ulster see off Northampton to set up Leicester Tigers semi-final
Ulster reached their first European semi final in nine years with a 35-27 victory over Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens in the last eight of the Challenge Cup.
Dan McFarland’s side have been rewarded with a third consecutive trip to England as as they travel to Welford Road to face two-time European Champions Leicester Tigers in the semi final on the weekend of April 30th.
Ulster outscored the Saints by five tries to four and had to come back from an eight point half time deficit.
The head coach was proud of the effort his side showed against the English Premiership outfit to reach the last four.
“A semi-final in Europe is a great place to be,” said McFarland.
“We talked about the disappointment of not playing play-off games in the Pro14 because of the nature of the competition this year, to win 14 games and not to get a play-off was disappointing.
“Now we have had a chance to play two play-off games these last two weeks, its cup rugby, it is all or nothing and the lads have risen to the occasion against two really big clubs who are sitting fourth and fifth in the English Premiership, and we were away from home.
“I think we were obviously hoping our skipper, Iain Henderson, would have been playing in the last two games, but we have done without him and we would be hopeful that a couple of the other guys will be coming back in the next few weeks and we will look forward to a semi-final.”
It was the proverbial game of two halves, despite getting three yellow cards in the first 40 minutes Saints went into the break with the lead.
“The areas of the game we needed to improve in were more or less attitude ones, not technical ones,” said McFarland.
“Now, we did execute better in a couple of areas, one was the high ball game, putting pressure on them there where I thought Rob Baloucoune was excellent, John Cooney’s kicking was phenomenal, but speed to breakdown and contact is an attitude thing, it is not a question of effort, it is a question of attitude and focus.
“The physicality on the gain line in dealing with the likes of Harrison, that is an attitude thing that we had to deal with.
“Technically we had to tighten up a little bit, when we were playing in attack they were flying off the line, they were really enthusiastic.
“We were probably playing the ball a little bit wide in situations where we should have been punching holes, getting Stu McCloskey and James Hume to punch tighter, getting the forwards to punch a little bit tiger particularly when we go into their final third and I think it was really effective when we did that in the second half.”
Saints struck after five minutes following a frantic start to the game scrum half Alex Mitchell sniped over for a try from close range with centre Piers Francis converting.
Saints flanker Nick Isiekwe and hooker Sam Matavesi were shown yellow cards either side of Ulster being awarded a penalty try after a driving maul was collapsed.
Northampton regained the lead with a Francis penalty.
Saints lock Dave Ribbands was sin binned on 22 minutes and hooker Rob Herring was propelled over for Ulster’s second try three minutes later which John Cooney converted.
Two quick tries from Northampton full back Tommy Freeman gave the Saints a 22-14 lead at the break.
Marty Moore barged over from close range seven minutes into the second half and Cooney’s conversion cut Saints lead to a point.
Ollie Sleightholme went over in the corner for the home side but tries from Cooney and Jacob Stockdale put Ulster into the semi-final.
Northampton Saints: T Freeman, O Sleightholme, R Hutchinson, P Francis, T Naiyaravoro;,D Biggar, A Mitchell, A Waller, S Matavesi, P Hill, D Ribbans, A Coles; N Isiekwe, L Ludlam, T Harrison.
Replacements: M Haywood for Matavesi 66 mins, N Auterac for Waller 66 mins, E Painter for Hill 66 mins, A Moon for Coles 69 mins, T Wood for Isiekwe 73 mins, T James for Mitchell 76 mins, A Tuala for Naiyaravoro 6 mins, F Dingwall for Freeman 55 mins
Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney, E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore, A O’Connor, K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy (capt), N Timoney.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick for O’Sullivan 66 mins, T O’Toole for Moore 57 mins, M Rea for Reidy 50 mins, G Jones, A Mathewson for Hume 79 mins, I Madigan for Burns 76 mins, E McIlroy for Lowry 61 mins
Ref: A Ruiz (France)