Lawes injury scares in Northampton’s narrow Champions Cup loss to Ulster | Champions Cup
When Courtney Lawes left the field with a grimace in the 64th minute, Franklin’s Gardens held her breath.
It was the England striker’s 250th appearance for Northampton and Eddie Jones, among the crowd as he prepares to name his 2022 Six Nations squad on Tuesday, looked worried. Lawes, who impressed as a substitute skipper in England’s fall win over South Africa, was hoping to mark his special day in style.
He was accompanied by his four children as he led the Saints side to enthusiastic applause and pyrotechnics before kick-off.
The 32-year-old appeared uneasy when he was substituted but afterwards Phil Dowson delivered a prognosis which was a blessed relief for club and Lawes country.
“We thought we were bringing fresh legs, so it was more prudent than anything,” said Northampton forwards coach Dowson. “He was exhausted and we had a lot of strikers on the bench to bring in. Courtney is experienced enough, old enough and 250 games lousy enough to tell us when he’s done. He agrees.”
Lawes appears to have taken a heavy hit about 10 minutes before being sent off, but again Dowson played down the seriousness of the complaint.
He added: “He was out of breath and it’s one of the worst injuries you can have for a short time. I’ve spoken to the doctor and there’s nothing out of the ordinary. When he says he has finished, he is very honest.
Exhaustion aside, it was no way for a man who has given so much to the Northampton cause over the past 15 years to score his landmark appearance. Credit to Ulster, of course. The deserved bonus points victory marked a third consecutive win in this season’s Champions Cup and secured their progress to the last 16 of the competition. Full-back Mike Lowry took center stage with a brilliant two-try display and wingers Robert Baloucoune and Ethan McIlroy were not far behind him in a youthful back line.
Ulster manager Dan McFarland said of his early three-man comeback: “It’s a moment in their career where they feel invincible. They are capable of producing magical moments.
Indeed, the visitors took a chance with deadly aplomb and capitalized on Northampton’s error-strewn performance as director of rugby Chris Boyd watched behind the posts as he served the first game of his suspension of two matches. After watching his side beaten 30-6 by Saracens in their Gallagher Premiership clash at Franklin’s Gardens on January 2, Boyd hit match referee Adam Leal.
The New Zealander – who will step down from his Saints role at the end of the season – criticized Leal’s handling of the scrum.
Boyd said Leal ‘didn’t have enough fools’ to penalize Saracens on the set piece and, although the 63-year-old is suspended from all coaching duties for the day, he can attend the matches as a spectator.
Ulster won 27-22 when the sides met last month and they led here when Baloucoune slipped past the Northampton defense to dive into the right corner.
That sixth-minute opener was soon added when Lowry picked up a kick from Rory Hutchinson one-handed and found Baloucoune sending scrum-half Nathan Doak rushing in.
The Saints responded when Dan Biggar completed a delightful move down the left flank after great work from Tom Collins. The winger took a fine pass from Hutchinson and shone smartly to bring support Biggar to the line for a try that revived Northampton’s hopes.
But on the eve of half-time Ulster struck again when a kick from fly-half Billy Burns landed nicely for Lowry to score and the try was awarded by TMO despite suspicions of an earlier sequence.
In the 55th minute, Saints scrum-half Alex Mitchell was sent to the trash for a deliberate offside after Lowry threatened the inside line with another explosive flurry.
Five minutes later, Lowry returned to the front of the stage, finishing in style after Baloucoune’s pass sent Mcllroy through the lead-footed home defense.
Northampton claimed a late try through Hutchinson but their qualifying hopes are nearly 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.