Saints' coach Jim Mallinder said a burning desire to make amends for last week's drubbing in their own backyard was the primary reason for them ending Ulster's winning run here last night.
Mallinder was thrilled that his men restored pride after Ulster plundered five points from Franklin's Gardens last week. "We really wanted to make amends for last week. We got quick ball this time and that helped us greatly," he said.
Ruan Pienaar had a chance with a late penalty from the right to snatch victory for the home side but he was off target as Ulster's 13-match winning run since the start of the season came to an unlikely halt.
Their coach Mark Anscombe feared Ulster's form was dipping in their last three RaboDirect Pro12 games but was hopeful that they had put that behind them last week.
Northampton set out their stall early but while they dominated the opening moments, a possession statistic of 80 per cent after 10 minutes still only yielded a 3-0 lead.
And that came from an Ulster mistake when Northampton piled on the pressure after an overthrow from Rory Best but they had to settle for a penalty from Stephen Myler after the home defence held firm.
However, Northampton continued to dictate and got their reward after 18 minutes, working the ball through hands from the left inside the 22 for Ken Pisi to set up his No 8 Gerrit-Jan van Velze and the South African fended off Andrew Trimble, who went too high in the tackle, to dive over.
Myler landed the touchline conversion to make it 10-0 and the Ulster fans were in no doubt that their winning run was under serious threat.
Northampton lost Van Velze after 26 minutes to a head injury picked up scoring the try, paving the way for Courtney Lawes. Ulster struggled to get forward ball but while their scrum began to get on top, they were guilty of poor handling, Jared Payne and Trimble failing to hold on to the ball.
Nick Williams's influence on Ulster this season has been superb and while he produced a few typically barging runs up the middle, it was his interception of a weak Myler chip in midfield which helped get Ulster off the mark.
Williams only had Rory Best in support and Saints scrambled to deal with the initial danger but continued pressure produced a penalty which Paddy Jackson slotted to make it 10-3 after half an hour. Jackson missed another from 25 metres four minutes later as Ulster finally started to kick into gear. But Jackson made no mistake two minutes later from 30 metres to make it 10-6 at the break.
Jackson gave Ulster a further boost two minutes after the restart after Tommy Bowe retained possession in the tackle, and kept a promising move alive before Saints infringed and the Ulster out-half made it 10-9.
Northampton responded to the challenge superbly and had plenty of possession in the danger zone but Myler often opted to kick when they might have been better served to keep the ball in hand.
Pienaar tried to put Ulster in front for the first time but a penalty from inside his own half landed just short after 58 minutes.
But then three minutes from time Ulster got a chance when a break from Bowe yielded a penalty on the right. Bowe was forced to go off with serious knee ligament damage and after the delay, Pienaar lined up the kick from the right touchline but narrowly missed and Northampton claimed an unlikely, but deserved, victory.
"We created enough chances to win it, but we didn't have the composure to take the scores," said Ulster's coach Mark Anscombe.
Ulster J Payne; T Bowe (N McComb, 77), D Cave, P Wallace (L Marshall, 68), A Trimble (C Gilroy, 56); P Jackson (P Marshall, 62), R Pienaar; T Court (C Black, 68), R Best, J Afoa; I Henderson, D Tuohy (R Lutton, 79); N Williams (R Diack, 71), C Henry, R Wilson.
Northampton Saints B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, T May, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 63), M Haywood, P Doran-Jones (B Mujati, 54); S Manoa, C Clark (M Sorenson, 64); T Wood, P Dowson, G van Velze (C Lawes, 26).
Referee Nigel Owens (WRU).
Pens: Jackson 3
Try: Van Velze
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