When Courtney Lawes left the field with a grimace in the 64th minute, Franklin’s Gardens held its breath.
It was the England forward’s 250th appearance for Northampton and Eddie Jones, among the crowd as he prepares to name his 2022 Six Nations squad on Tuesday, looked concerned. Lawes, who impressed as a stand-in skipper in England’s autumn victory over South Africa, had been hoping to mark his special day in style.
He was accompanied by his four children as he led the Saints team out to rapturous applause and pyrotechnics before kick-off.
The 32-year-old appeared in discomfort when he was replaced, yet afterwards Phil Dowson delivered a prognosis that came as a blessed relief to Lawes’s club and country.
“We thought we’d bring some fresh legs on so it was more precautionary than anything else,” Dowson, Northampton’s forwards coach, said. “He was exhausted, and we had lots of forwards on the bench to bring on. Courtney is experienced enough, old enough and 250 games ugly enough to tell us when he’s done. He’s OK.”
Lawes appeared to have taken a heavy knock around 10 minutes before he was forced off, but again Dowson played down the seriousness of the complaint.
He added: “He was winded and that’s one of the worst injuries you can get for a short period. I’ve spoken to the medic and there’s nothing glaring. When he says he’s done, he’s very honest.”
Exhaustion aside, this was no way for a man who has given so much to the Northampton cause during the past 15 years to mark his milestone appearance. Credit to Ulster, of course. This deserved bonus-point victory marked a third straight win in this season’s Champions Cup and secured their progress to the last 16 of the competition. Mike Lowry, the full-back, took centre stage with a brilliant two-try display and the wingers Robert Baloucoune and Ethan McIlroy were not far behind him in a youthful backline.
The Ulster coach, Dan McFarland, said of his dashing back three: “It’s a time in their career where they feel they are invincible. They are able to produce some magic moments.”
Indeed, the visitors took their chances with deadly aplomb and capitalised on Northampton’s error-strewn performance which the director of rugby, Chris Boyd, watched from the behind the posts as he served the first game of his two-match ban. After he watched his side beaten 30-6 by Saracens in their Gallagher Premiership clash at Franklin’s Gardens on 2 January, Boyd hit out at the game’s referee Adam Leal.
The New Zealander – who will leave his role at Saints at the end of the season – criticised Leal’s handling of the scrum.
Boyd said Leal “didn’t have enough nuts” to penalise Saracens at the set piece and, while the 63-year-old is suspended from all matchday coaching duties, he can attend the games as a spectator.
Ulster won 27-22 when the sides met last month and they led here when Baloucoune evaded the Northampton defence to dive over in the right corner.
That sixth-minute opener was soon added to when Lowry collected a kick from Rory Hutchinson one-handed and found Baloucoune who sent the scrum-half Nathan Doak scurrying clear.
Saints replied when Dan Biggar finished off a delightful move down the left flank after fine work from Tom Collins. The wing took a fine pass from Hutchinson and showed intelligence to usher the supporting Biggar over the line for a try which revived Northampton hopes.
But on the stroke of half-time, Ulster struck again when a kick from the fly-half Billy Burns fell kindly for Lowry to score and the try was awarded by the TMO despite suspicions of an earlier knock-on.
In the 55th minute, the Saints scrum-half Alex Mitchell was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate offside after Lowry had threatened the home line with another explosive burst.
Five minutes later, Lowry took centre stage again, finishing off in style after Baloucoune’s pass had sent Mcllroy through the leaden-footed home defence.
Northampton claimed a late try through Hutchinson but their qualification hopes are all but over.
Dowson added: “Courtney is a big part of this club and is one of England’s captains. We wanted to make it a special day for him and we failed on that front.”