They may be an endangered species – English rugby's answer to the leatherback sea turtle or the brown spider monkey – but there are still three or four Premiership investors with a few bob left in their wallets, rather than fresh air where their money used to be, and a strong desire to lavish it on marquee players from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in an effort to restore the nation's credibility at European level. Increase the salary cap, they say, and with the help of the southern hemisphere, we can rule the northern hemisphere once again. Madness? There is barely an economist in existence who would call it anything else.
Yet had Adam D'Arcy, the lightweight Ulster full-back, held a straightforward scoring pass after an hour of yesterday's Heineken Cup quarter-final in Milton Keynes and pushed Northampton towards a second successive last-eight defeat, the "spend, spend, spend" argument mounted by Bruce Craig of Bath, Nigel Wray of Saracens and the intimidatingly powerful board of Leicester would have gained significant momentum and left the top end of English rugby at loggerheads with itself. When it comes to the big picture, the tiniest detail can be critical.
Keith Barwell, the financial driving force behind Northampton, is another of the anti-salary cap brigade, and strange as it may seem, he might have had a better chance of carrying the argument had his beloved Saints lost this game. Defeat would have left England without a semi-finalist once again – they drew a blank last year when the Midlanders lost to Munster in Limerick – and generated a fresh round of crisis talk amongst the men dressed in club scarves and business suits. Thanks in no small part to D'Arcy's butterfingered contribution, the opposite happened.
Northampton, rocked to their socks during the first half by an Ulster performance of enormous heart and no little ingenuity, had redoubled their efforts in the grunt-and-groan department and earned themselves a seven-point advantage at 20-13. D'Arcy found touch with a long clearance kick, only to see the England full-back Ben Foden chance his arm with a quick throw. Stephen Myler and Chris Ashton carried play against the grain to free Foden down the left, and despite Ruan Pienaar's fine covering tackle, Jon Clarke was able to make ground off the side of the ruck and send Lee Dickson in for a try, duly converted by Myler.
An immediate response from Ulster, who had already overturned a similar deficit and were showing no signs of going away, would have really hurt the favourites, and with the excellent Ian Humphreys to the fore at outside-half, they gave it everything they had. On any other day, D'Arcy would have cruised over for the equalising try following Humphreys' twinkle-toed wrong-footing of the Northampton midfield, but instead of gathering Paddy Wallace's perfectly acceptable pass, he threw it straight on the floor. In that moment, the visitors' hopes were dashed.
"Things were getting a little nervy where I was sitting, a little sweaty," admitted Jim Mallinder, the Northampton director of rugby, who had set the salary-cap debate raging this time last year by lamenting the spending restrictions that he felt left his club seriously disadvantaged in their effort to keep pace with the strongest Irish and French contenders. "We knew Ulster would come with a good attacking game, that they presented a threat," he added, and had the game moved into the final quarter all square, they would have grown more threatening by the minute. Instead, Myler maximised his side's good fortune by nailing a breathing-space penalty from 44 metres.
One way or another, the men from Belfast made life difficult for themselves. Despite fielding four South Africans in their pack – Robbie Diack, the least celebrated of them, was probably the pick, and he may interest the Ireland coach Declan Kidney when he qualifies for a change of sporting nationality over the coming months – they always suspected they would cop it up front, and when the intensely physical Northampton pack drove a maul from the kick-off, spat Tom Court clean out the back of it and left Rory Best searching for the scrum cap that had been ripped from his head, their worst fears were confirmed. However, none of this explained Andrew Trimble's schoolboy fumble a couple of yards from his own line, an error that led to a close-range try for Soane Tonga'uiha.
But once things settled, the balance of the contest shifted towards the visitors, and they were rewarded with a fine try by Trimble, created by clever distribution from Wallace and Best. Come the interval, it was Northampton who were grateful for an opportunity to take stock.
After the break, things became a little tasty. Courtney Lawes, performing at something very close to Test pitch, had a falling-out with the Springbok lock Johann Muller at a line-out, and there was more than one bout of how's-your-father at scrum time. At one point, the Northampton captain Dylan Hartley appeared to complain of being bitten. Asked about it afterwards, he claimed a loss of memory. "It was hot out there," he explained, not terribly convincingly. "I think I have sunstroke." Pressed further, he changed his tune while refusing to apportion blame: "It was my fault for trying to pull someone out of a ruck by his head."
More might have been made of it had the result gone the other way, but Hartley preferred to look ahead to the semi-final with Perpignan at this same venue on May Day. It should be some occasion. Forced to switch this game from Franklin's Gardens because the local council refuses to sanction Barwell's planned stadium development, Northampton barely knew they were away from home. "It was just like the Gardens, only louder," said Myler. Judging by the way the Catalans are playing right now, the Saints will need all that noise and more next month.
Scorers: Northampton - Tries: Tonga'uiha, Dickson. Conversions: Myler 2. Penalties: Myler 3. Ulster - Try: Trimble. Conversion: Humphreys. Penalties: Humphreys 2.
Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 78), D Hartley (capt, B Sharman 80), B Mujati, C Lawes, C Day, P Dowson (C Clark 78), T Wood, R Wilson.
Ulster: A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli (C Gilroy 76); I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (capt), B J Botha (P McAllister 73), J Muller (I Whitten 80), D Tuohy (T Barker 58), R Diack (W Faloon 65), C Henry, P Wannenburg.
Referee: R Poite (France).