Ulster dug deep to produce an impressive second half display to finally put a stubborn Northampton Saints side away and secure a semi-final date in the European Challenge Cup.
Saturday night’s game at Franklin Gardens turned out to be a ding dong affair with the English Premiership side again shown three yellow cards by French referee Alexandre Ruiz, just as he had done a week ago in Newport.
The Irish province failed to manage the numerical advantage period well and went in at the break trailing 22-14.
But Dan McFarland’s side found their trophy chasing hunger on the restart and eventually powered to a deserved win with a dominant and well managed second half.
The early exchanges saw advantage to Saints at the first scrum, Ulster pinged on the loosehead side and then a promising attack from the visitors which saw Billy Burns miss pass to Stuart McCloskey who in turn sent Robert Baloucoune away on the right.
The Ulster winger grubber kicked in field, but the chasing Michael Lowry was deemed to be ahead of the ball.
From there Saints found good field position and winger, Taqele Naiyaravoro bulldozed over Burns and from there the hosts pressed the Ulster line. Stopped the first time, scrumhalf Alex Mitchell got himself out of the maul and dived over the line. Centre Piers Francis added the extras for a 7-0 lead after five minutes.
Their celebrations were shortlived as Saints’ backrow Nick Isiekwe was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on Burns four minutes later.
Having gone three times to touch for consecutive penalties, Ulster's driving maul finally began to move, but a side entry from home hooker, Sam Matavesi, saw referee Alexandre Ruiz award the penalty try and Matavesi joined Isiekew in the bin.
Northampton despite their numerical disadvantage were to get on the scoresheet again with a Francis penalty. Ulster pressed to make their extra manpower count but were undone by poor finishing and resolute defending by the hosts.
But the pressure told on the Saints as they gave away a seventh penalty and just after Isiekwe returned from the bin, lock David Ribbans was yellow carded and Saints were down to 13 again.
Ulster continued to press via route one at the driving maul and Saints’ hooker Matavesi had just returned when finally the visitors put the gas pedal down and finally breached the home defence. John Cooney added the extras for a 10-14 lead.
Still down to 14, Saints rallied and Ulster were too loose in defence. The home pack pummelled the line, but access was denied. But from a ruck, Mitchell gave to Dan Biggar and his drilled pass to fullback Tommy Freeman saw him go between two defenders and score, Francis unable to add the extras.
Ribbans returned to make it a 15-a-side contest for the first time in 25 minutes, Burns kicked off and a break from Saints’ number eight Teimana Harrison off a ruck, saw Mitchell take the offload and he then sent Freeman away from inside his own half to score, Francis converting.
Ulster had one last attack, forced a penalty and Cooney opted for the sticks, but the usual reliable boot pushed in past the posts and the visitors went in at the break trailing 22-14.
An early penalty in the second half saw Burns pop it into the corner, but again Saints were more than able to cope with the driving maul. Ulster opted then to change direction, Cooney popping the ball into the path of Irish winger Jacob Stockdale, but he was held up.
Ulster came again and Reidy broke off a maul, before Marty Moore took it on. Eric O’Sullivan was stopped short and lock Kieran Treadwell came up inches short before Moore finally found a way to power over. Cooney’s conversion brought the visitors to within a point at 21-22 with 47 minutes played.
A probing kick from Biggar saw Lowry gather in his own corner, but the fullback was in all sorts of trouble as replacement Fraser Dingwall got over the ball and from the penalty, the Saints moved the ball right and winger Sleightholme cantered past Lowry to dot down, Francis missing the conversion, but Saints had stretched their advantage to 27-21.
The ding dong affair continued with a training ground lineout move where Alan O’Connor came around the front and charged down the flank. Ulster had clicked it up another gear and replacement prop Tommy O’Toole, Stuart McCloskey, Treadwell and Murphy all drove to the line before Cooney dived over from close out. The scrum half added the extras and Ulster were ahead by a point just after the hour mark.
Ulster then took charge and the efforts were rewarded as Stockdale was put in by Burns with Cooney converting to crucially put his side two scores ahead with seven minutes on the clock.
Mitchell, Freeman (2); : Francis; : Francis.
: Penalty, Herring, Moore, Cooney; Cooney (3).
Tommy Freeman, Ollie Sleightholme, Rory Hutchinson, Piers Francis, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Dan Biggar, Alex Mitchell; Alex Waller (capt),Sam Matavesi, Paul Hill, David Ribbans, Alex Coles, Nick Isiekwe, Lewis Ludlam, Teimana Harrison.