Northampton Saints 20 Ulster 24: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

Saints were the final English team in Champions Cup action at the weekend - and after seeing what their compatriots had previously achieved, hopes were high.

By Tom Vickers
Monday, 17th January 2022, 3:12 pm
Rory Hutchinson showed real belief against Ulster, capping a fine showing with a try
Rory Hutchinson showed real belief against Ulster, capping a fine showing with a try

But in the end, it was to be more disappointment for the black, green and gold as they were unable to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Harlequins, Wasps and...yes, Leicester Tigers.

Because while those teams all found ways to win, Saints found themselves on the wrong end of a European defeat once again.

It is now a club record six successive losses in the Champions Cup for Saints as their difficult campaign continued.

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What is true is that they have hardly had the luck of the draw.

While Quins and Tigers have taken on the likes of Cardiff and Connacht, Saints have had to do battle with Racing 92 and Ulster, two teams with aspirations of going all the way.

And though they have at least pushed Ulster until the final seconds of both matches, Saints have not looked like winning in Europe this season.

Late tries gave the scorelines against Ulster a very close look, even though the men from Belfast have been in control of their own destiny heading into the latter stages of both matches.

And against Racing, Saints were simply outclassed by a star-studded and powerful side.

It has been another sobering Champions Cup campaign, but there is no doubt that Saints have not helped themselves.

Racing were too good, but in both matches against Ulster, the black, green and gold have given their opponents a helping hand.

In fact, during the games in December and January, Saints could have changed their name to Northampton Santas such are the gifts they have given Ulster.

In Belfast, Alex Mitchell's yellow card proved costly during Saints' sluggish start.

At the Gardens, Mitchell was again sin-binned though it wasn't discipline that was the main problem on this occasion: it was handling.

Ulster's first three tries came from Saints knock-ons as the bouncing ball proved to be so problematic for the hosts.

To their credit, Ulster were ruthless in their execution as on two of the three occasions there was still so much hard work to do.

But with Robert Baloucoune and Michael Lowry so clinical, the men in red were able to rack up a bonus-point win that propelled them into the knockout stages.

Even without several of their key players, Ulster had got the job done at the Gardens.

And that bodes well for them as they go further in the competition.

As for Saints, they would need something of a miracle to progress in the Champions Cup and they should rotate against Racing 92 to keep key men fresh for the return to Premiership action at Worcester Warriors six days later.

Had they beaten Ulster just once, they would have been in the mix to make it into the Champions Cup last 16, but now the Challenge Cup looks far more likely.

The Premiership has to be their main aim though, as they are still well-placed in their domestic competition, sitting fifth in the standings.

But unless Saints find a way to eradicate errors and ill-discipline - which didnt blight them on this occasion but has so often - from their game, they will not be able to achieve their ambitions.

Ulster and the likes of Saracens and Harlequins have shown how top sides are able to make the most of chinks in the Saints armour.

They wait for their moment and pounce when it comes.

The same can't be said for Saints, who are not as ruthless in taking opportunities as the sides currently ahead of them in the pecking order.

Yes, they are able to score picturebook tries like the one Dan Biggar bagged against Ulster, but those are few and far between against the best outfits.

And unless Saints become more secure in possession and out of it, they will find it tough to deliver the Premiership crown they crave.

There were hugely positive signs in the win at Newcastle Falcons prior to the Ulster game, and the spirit they showed against the side from Belfast is also something to be pleased about.

But Saints know they need more than just grit and determination in the weeks and months to come.

How they rated...

GEORGE FURBANK

Made more carries than any other Saints player and was certainly a threat when he got his hands on the ball... 6.5

COURTNALL SKOSAN

Not the best of days for the wing as he was tested with the high ball and struggled with his handling on a couple of occasions... 5.5

TOM LITCHFIELD

Was making his first Champions Cup start for Saints and showed no signs of nerves as he continually tried to carry the fight to Ulster... 6.5

RORY HUTCHINSON

This man's swagger appears to be returning and this was a showing full of confidence as he not only kicked well from hand but also ran some lovely lines and scored a late try... 7.5

TOM COLLINS

Wasn't able to stop Robert Baloucoune scoring during the first half but made up for it by playing a key role in Dan Biggar's try... 6

DAN BIGGAR

Etched his name on the scoresheet but will rue a failure to gather inside his own half as Ulster picked up to score a key try just before half-time... 6

ALEX MITCHELL

Will be glad to see the back of Ulster after being hit with a sin-binning in both games, and they shut his avenues down well in attack... 5

ALEX WALLER

Got through plenty of work for his team but also fell foul of the referee once or twice... 6

SAM MATAVESI

Was hungry for turnovers as he tried to put pressure on Ulster at the breakdown and also showed real desire with ball in hand... 6.5

EHREN PAINTER

Came in at late notice for Paul Hill and was steady enough at scrum time but wasn't really able to have too much of a say in open play... 6

DAVID RIBBANS

Was in the top five for Saints in terms of tackles and carries, showing just how much effort he put into this game, but it didn't all go his way... 6.5

BRANDON NANSEN

One big first-half break showcased this man's ability and he certainly doesn't lack power or desire but he was replaced at half-time... 6.5

COURTNEY LAWES

Made his 250th appearance for Saints and this was much like most of the others as he put everything he had into it and put real pressure on the opposition... 7

LEWIS LUDLAM

Made an eye-watering 25 tackles as he thundered around the field in pursuit of a win for his team... 7

TEIMANA HARRISON

Racked up a whopping 26 tackles in just 56 minutes on the field as he did everything he could to help Saints over the line... 7

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

API RATUNIYARAWA (for Nansen 40)

Was in the thick of the action after coming on, trying to push back the Ulster tide with a series of carries... 6.5

JUARNO AUGUSTUS (for Harrison 56)

Saints sought impact from their big ball-carrying No.8, but Ulster were able to cope with his threat well... 6

CHRON STAR MAN - Michael Lowry (Ulster)