Ulster won their 13th game in 13 outings this season when they clinched an impressive 25-6 bonus-point triumph over Northampton on Friday to stay on course for the European Cup quarter-finals.
Ulster scored four tries to stay top of Pool 4 with three wins out of three, while Northampton slipped to third place behind Castres, who beat Glasgow 9-6.
“That was a bit of a statement,” Ulster coach Mark Anscombe said.
“We weren’t even thinking about the bonus point. We were more than happy to come and take the win, but we are not getting carried away. Northampton have too many quality players and they will bounce back from this performance,” he added.
In the night’s other match, Connacht celebrated their first win over French opposition with a 22-14 victory against Biarritz in Pool 3.
Ulster, the 1999 champions and runners-up to Leinster last season, opened the scoring at Franklin’s Gardens after 10 minutes through winger Andrew Trimble.
Paddy Jackson released his teammate with a clever, delayed chip ahead, which fell perfectly for Trimble to beat Northampton fullback Ben Foden to the ball and touch down for his 20th European Cup try in his 49th match.
Jackson missed the conversion before opposing flyhalf Ryan Lamb fluffed his second penalty of the night.
Jackson then went wide with a penalty from just inside the Saints’ half, before Lamb finally found his length and direction with a long-range penalty to make the score 5-3 to the Irish side.
Ulster won a penalty straight from the restart, for a lineout infringement, and this time Jackson hit the target to put his team 8-3 to the good.
Lamb’s poor night continued when he missed a third penalty just before the half-hour mark when veteran center Paddy Wallace was punished for a dangerous tackle on Northampton winger Ken Pisi.
Ulster scored their second try in the 33rd minute through winger Tommy Bowe.
The move was created by New Zealand fullback Jared Payne’s pinpoint kick ahead, which rocked Northampton back on their heels.
Ulster created the overlap, with Wallace putting Bowe in space for his 23rd European Cup try as the visitors went 13-3 ahead, although Jackson again missed the conversion.
Lamb at least kept the Saints in touch with a 20m penalty as Ulster went in at halftime with a 13-6 lead.
That advantage quickly became 18-6 early in the second period when Payne grabbed Ulster’s third try, collecting Trimble’s pass before nipping inside the Northampton defense with a smart dummy to score.
Jackson added the extras for 20-6.
Lock Dan Tuohy added the bonus-point try in the last minute for 25-6, with Jackson’s conversion out wide missing the target.