Courtney Lawes efforts in vain as Ulster leave Northampton Saints' European hopes hanging by a thread

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Courtney Lawes Northampton Saints - GETTY IMAGES
Courtney Lawes Northampton Saints - GETTY IMAGES

Northampton 20-24 Ulster

No wonder Chris Boyd cut a frustrated figure, sitting on his own in the Barwell Stand behind the posts as his side’s Champions Cup hopes were all but extinguished.

The New Zealander, serving the first of a two-match ban for criticising a referee, was unable to have any influence as his side slipped to their third successive defeat in Europe and a second to a highly impressive Ulster side.

One wonders if the Saints director of rugby will even travel to Paris for Northampton’s final pool match against Racing 92 next Sunday, given they effectively only have an outside mathematical hope of reaching the last 16.

It will mark a sad end for Boyd’s involvement in Europe, given that the 63 year-old is due to return to New Zealand at the end of the season after four seasons with the Premiership club.

Chris Boyd - GETTY IMAGES
Chris Boyd - GETTY IMAGES

His side, with Phil Dowson in temporary charge, contributed gamely to a compelling match, which breathed some life in a tournament that is desperate for a splash of colour after a couple of dark months.

But, ultimately, they were comfortably outplayed by an Ulster side that moved joint-top of Pool A alongside Racing 92 scoring four tries to qualify for the last 16.

Northampton have now lost six games in succession in Europe, which simply is not good enough for a club with such high expectations.

Not even Courtney Lawes, playing in his 250th appearance for the club, could salvage the afternoon, although the England captain made a telling contribution by winning a crucial turn-over in the build-up to a try by Dan Biggar that kept his side in touch 12-10 at the interval.

Lawes, who contracted Covid last month, had to come off in the 62nd minute with fatigue, but is not thought to be an injury doubt for the Six Nations.

“He was exhausted, and we had a six-two bench and so one of the guys had to come off,” said Dowson, who will take over as director of rugby next season.

“Courtney is experienced enough, old enough and 250 games ugly enough to tell us when he’s done. We thought we’d bring some fresh legs on. It was more precautionary than anything else, he’s ok. When he says he’s done, he’s very honest.

“We wanted to make it a special day, and we failed on that front. Courtney is a big part of this club – not just in terms of the games but the way he’s played them and the way he leads. He’s one of England’s captains. We wanted to make it special for him and we didn’t quite manage that today.”

Ulster, despite missing key personnel Iain Henderson, Stuart McCloskey and John Cooney, were worthy victors, a reward for their ambitious approach, often running the ball from deep inside their own half, backed by a rapier back three of Mike Lowry, Robert Baloucoune and Ethan McIlroy and a powerful and creative midfield of Stewart Moore and James Hume.

James Hume - PA
James Hume - PA

Dan McFarland’s side outscored Saints three tries to one in the first half, and caught their hosts with a blitzkrieg opening with tries by Robert Baloucoune and Nathan Doak establishing a 12-0 lead. From there Northampton were always playing catch up, and even when they threatened to do so, Ulster were always able to respond, with Lowry scoring just before the break after the ball was ruled to have come off Moore’s stomach as he attempted to gather a chip ahead by Billy Burns.

Alex Mitchell and George Furbank were central to Northampton’s attacking intentions but when Mitchell was shown a yellow card after Lowry almost raced over for a second try, Ulster were able to take control.

There were moments of frustration too for Ulster. Ian Madigan, on for Burns dummied the penalty kick to touch only to get held up before the line and conceded the penalty and Balcoucoune threw a high-risk pass that was intercepted by Tom Litchfield as he counter-attacked from his own 22, while McIlroy kicked directly into touch.

And yet the Irish province were in no mood to let up. With Hume driving hard up the middle, Balcoucoune found McIlroy and then a jinxing finish by Lowry secured the four-try bonus point.

"We knew it would be a seriously tough game, Saints play a lovely brand of rugby, it's great to get the win,” said man-of-the-match Lowry. We all get on so well it makes my job a lot easier, we can speak to each other about the disappointing things. Everyone has the ambition of going on to win silverware but there is a lot for us to improve."

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