|Northampton: (10) 20|
|Tries: Biggar, Hutchinson; Pens: Biggar 2; Cons: Biggar, Furbank|
|Ulster: (19) 24|
|Tries: Baloucoune, Doak, Lowry 2; Cons: Doak 2|
Ulster reached the Champions Cup last 16 as they held off a valiant Northampton to claim a bonus-point win.
The visitors were 12-0 up after 15 minutes thanks to tries from Robert Baloucoune and Nathan Doak.
Northampton hit back as Dan Biggar finished off a superb team try but Michael Lowry extended Ulster’s lead with a try before the break.
Lowry scored again and Rory Hutchinson’s late try was enough to earn Northampton a losing bonus point.
Northampton are 10th in Pool A and there is one group game left, with only the top eight teams qualifying for the last 16 and those finishing 9-11th dropping down to the Challenge Cup.
Lowry’s rapid reactions undo Saints
Ulster won 27-22 when the two sides met in December and it looked as if they would claim an even more convincing victory when Baloucoune went over.
Scrum-half Doak – standing in for the injured John Cooney – found half a gap and the returning Baloucoune picked up the ball from the base of a ruck to dart over the line.
One of several players looking to impress national coaches ahead of February’s Six Nations, the wing was involved in Ulster’s next try too.
Full-back Lowry showed rapid reactions to scoop up a loose ball and find Baloucoune, who fed Doak for a second try in 15 minutes.
As both teams looked to push the pace of play, Biggar got Northampton on the board with a penalty before Courtney Lawes – making his 250th appearance for the club – stole the ball at the breakdown to begin an impressive move.
Northampton were swift in their counter-attack and Biggar sent the ball wide to Hutchinson, who drew enough defenders to give the fly-half space to touch down and cut Ulster’s lead to two.
But once again Lowry’s quick reactions were Northampton’s undoing as he grabbed hold of a bouncing ball from Billy Burns’ boot to extend Ulster’s lead.
Another Biggar penalty kept Northampton in the game but man-of-the-match Lowry was soon away yet again, storming down the pitch and halted metres from the try-line.
With England head coach Eddie Jones watching in the stands, aspiring international scrum-half Alex Mitchell was sin-binned in the ensuing battle on the floor before Saints’ forwards won the ball back to end Ulster’s challenge.
Mitchell is one option to succeed veteran England nine Ben Youngs, but Bristol’s Harry Randall may have already caught Jones’ eye in his impressive performance on Saturday.
The visitors could not be kept out for long as Baloucoune’s well-timed offload helped make room for Lowry to go over for his second try.
Hutchinson then scythed through defenders to score and George Furbank took a quick conversion to cut Ulster’s lead to four points with 11 seconds left on the clock – not enough time for Northampton to turn things around.
Northampton: Furbank; Skosan, Litchfield, Hutchinson, Collins; Biggar, Mitchell; Waller, Matavesi, Painter; Ribbans, Nansen; Lawes, Ludlam (capt), Harrison.
Replacements: Fish, Iyogun, Garside, Ratuniyarawa, Coles, Augustus, James, Freeman
Sin-bin: Mitchell (56)
Ulster: Lowry; Baloucoune, Hume, Moore, McIlroy; Burns, Doak; Warwick, Herring, Moore, A O’Connor (capt), Treadwell, Marcus Rea, Timoney, Vermeulen.
Replacements: Andrew, O’Sullivan, O’Toole, Carter, Jones, Shanahan, Madigan, Moxham.
Referee: Pierre Brousset (France)
Assistant referees: Luc Ramos and Flavien Hourquet (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)