Despite the 100% being snapped, injuries were Ulster’s greatest concerns, writes Kristian Ross…
Ulster's incredible 100% percent record came to an abrupt stop as a solid Northampton Saints side inflicted a first defeat on Mark Anscombe's side in Round 4 of the Heineken Cup.
Northampton drew first blood, a penalty from Stephen Myler sent the Saints into an early lead, but Ulster started piling on decent pressure, good runs down the wing testing the Premiership sides defence.
However the Saints almost scored themselves, a run down the wing by Heywood almost saw Ulster staring down the barrel of a big challenge.. And when GJ Van Jelze did score down the right wing, Ulster knew they would have to dig deep, especially due to Stephen Myler's fantastic conversion.
Nick Williams almost intercepted for an Ulster try, but his pace wasn't good enough as Northampton defended well again.
At last Ulster finally registered on the board when Paddy Jackson sent over a penalty, the Belfast side now had a platform to attack. And Williams again sprinted free and almost launched a lethal attack that finally came to a end when Jared Payne knocked forward.
But Northampton's discipline started to slide, and Paddy Jackson had a chance to reduce the deficit, but sliced his effort wide of the posts. However a few minutes later Jackson again had the opportunity to make it just a four point gap, and this time he didn't disappoint, allowing Ulster to go into HT narrowly behind.
Ulster came out in the second half firing right away, immediately attacking Northampton with ferocity and skill and winning a penalty and Paddy Jackson reduced the gap to a single point with consummate ease.
However Northampton came back, counter attacking and forcing Ulster to kick in to touch in their own half, the men in white sensing once more that this would not be easy. Samu Manoa almost went close for the Saints, but was adjudged by referee Nigel Owens to have made a double movement. However the English side were now starting to cause problems for the PRO12 leaders.
Ulster came into their own eventually and when they got a penalty from inside there half at a massive 60m, Ruan Pienaar was the man who tried the optimistic kick, but it fell short.
Again Ulster looked to build, sloppy handling was costing them time, but Tommy Bowe and Nick Williams almost combined for the score, as Ulster started to build pressure from the lineout. Once more Nick Williams denied as Nigel Owens went upstairs to the TMO.
A five metre scrum now possibly was resting on Ulster's match, and the scrum came to nothing, the Ulstermen penalised and Northampton able to clear.
But still Ulster chipped away, attack after attack, but once more Nick Williams was involved and left disappointed as he knocked forward.
Incredibly Ulster had a another breakaway a few minutes later and Craig Gilroy, Mr Twinkletoes himself almost was away until a fantastic tackle by Jamie Elliot denied Ulster yet another chance of the score.
As the game wound down, the concern however turned to Tommy Bowe, awkwardly landing after a good move, Tommy looks like he may have a serious injury the could keep him out for a sustained period of time.
Finally as the clock went into the red, the ball was put out into touch, and the headlines were waiting, Ulster had been stunned by the Saints. 10-9.
As things go, in the second half, Northampton's defence was outstanding. Numerous Ulster breakaways were defended well, but Anscombe will be ruing numerous turnovers as well as penalties. On a brighter note, Ulster still remain top of the pool, and on course for a home quarter final spot.
Saturday night showed that on your day, any team can beat the opposition, however it was strange seeing Ulster not come away with four points for the first time all season. The first defeat in a Heineken Cup encounter in four years, but the Saints had to amount a mammoth effort in order to do it.
Ulster are still the team to beat and next Friday night is the showdown, the Christmas special, the repeat of last season's Heineken Cup final as the Ulstermen take on provincial rivals and European champions Leinster at Ravenhill.
But one thing is for certain... The unbeaten record across all formats may be gone.... But Leinster take heed... The PRO12 record is well intact.
Stand Up For The Ulstermen.
I'm Kristian. 18. And my mind is filled with rugby shaped thoughts. Supporting Ulster Rugby, Newcastle Falcons and of course the mighty Ireland. Tommy Bowe is the MAN !!!! SUFTUM.