Rugby

Saturday 26 July 2014

Bridge too far for brave Ulster

SARACENS 27 ULSTER 16

Published 07/04/2013|04:00

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Ulster’s Luke Marshall is tackled by Saracens’ duo David Strettle and Alex Goode during yesterday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final at Twickenham.

After the torrid weekend England's clubs had endured in Europe, with Gloucester, Wasps and Bath all tumbling out of the Amlin Challenge Cup, the one flag you felt sure would be still flying by close of business last night was the black and red of Saracens. The warning shot they fired when sorting out Harlequins in the Premiership two weeks ago was enough to make you take cover. They didn't give the ball as much air here yesterday but, in front of a crowd of 37,888, they didn't leave any questions unanswered.

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After the torrid weekend England's clubs had endured in Europe, with Gloucester, Wasps and Bath all tumbling out of the Amlin Challenge Cup, the one flag you felt sure would be still flying by close of business last night was the black and red of Saracens. The warning shot they fired when sorting out Harlequins in the Premiership two weeks ago was enough to make you take cover. They didn't give the ball as much air here yesterday but, in front of a crowd of 37,888, they didn't leave any questions unanswered.

Ulster can't like Twickenham much. Beaten out the gate here in last season's final, this wasn't as ugly but still it was a book you could put down before the finish and know how it was going to end. Which, for the away side, was in misery.

Speaking of endings, we await news on the future of Luke Marshall, who suffered what appeared to be his third head injury in as many games – two in back-to-back concluding games of the Six Nations – and then this one where he had to he helped from the scene by two assistants. It was a pathetic sight.

By no stretch would you say the same of the Ulster effort. They plugged away to the end when the excellent Iain Henderson – who was their go-to ball carrier rather than Nick Williams, who Sarries put in a box, and closed the lid – got over for a well-deserved try.

Moreover they had justifiable cause for grievance. Well into the second quarter, with the scores tied 6-6, thanks to Ruan Pienaar's second penalty, they fielded Owen Farrell's restart and looked to play their way out. But Jared Payne's pass to Craig Gilroy was knocked forward and into touch by Ernst Joubert. The touch judge, Leighton Hodges, missed it, and so Saracens had a lineout platform which they used to maul their way to a try for Will Fraser, confirmed by the TMO.

Farrell's conversion made it 13-6, and three minutes later that became 16-6 when they caught Nick Williams well behind the gain line and with a kick chase that didn't give him time to think.

Their pre-match planning had identified the No 8 as the man to stop. So they did what they do best: they kicked accurately to him, and then chased hard and fast. Williams had a miserable time of it, and when he's not carrying then Ulster are not motoring.

He might have thought it would be a good day for him given the huge advantage Ulster had at the scrum. It was a terrific platform, but an infrequent one compared to the number of times they would be battling for ball at the breakdown or trying to escape the full-court press applied by the Saracens chasers.

They are a bloody hard team to play against, for they make everything a chore, from retaining the ball at the tackle to trying to win it back when you've lost it.

Sarries will be back here again at the end of the month to play the winners of today's tie between Toulon and Leicester Tigers. For a bit of colour and contrast you'd hope it's the French side who fill that slot.

Whoever it is they will have their hands full, from dealing with Owen Farrell's consistency off the tee – he was six out of seven, and the seventh was of no consequence – to the all-round efficiency of their game. Farrell and Pienaar were two penalties each before that big call came leading to Fraser's try, but already the Ulster forwards were struggling to make their opposite numbers work hard enough.

You could see it in the build- up to Pienaar's second penalty success (his second effort had come off the post, which lead to the third) when they had an advantage play and went wide when their forwards needed to do some damage.

Ulster trailed 16-6 at the break and when Marshall was penalised for crossing early in the second half, Farrell made it 19-6 and even with over half an hour left there was no way back.

Pienaar and Farrell swapped penalties before Sarries got out of sight with a Chris Ashton try on 63 minutes. Unfortunately for Henderson the position came from his intercept pass, but in fairness to the wing, he did what he does best: running a line off the first receiver and then skating around a few defenders.

At least the Ulster men would have the final say. With Tommy Bowe on the field and looking fit – good news for Warren Gatland – Ulster worked very hard to keep the ball alive for Henderson to finish with a score warmly received by their large band of supporters. They had planned to make Twickenham home, but after this they will want to move to a new neighbourhood.

Too many bullies round these parts and precious little in the way of hospitality.

Scorers – Saracens: Fraser, Ashton tries; Farrell 5 pens, con. Ulster: Henderson try; Pienaar 3 pens, con.

Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins (C Hodgson 74), B Barritt, D Strettle (C Wyles 66); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 51); M Vunipola (R Gill 57), S Brits (J Smit 59), M Stevens (P du Plessis 78); S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha 57); K Brown, E Joubert, W Fraser (J Wray 74).

Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave (T Bowe 58), L Marshall (S Olding 69), C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court (C Black 74), R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (R Diack 65), D Tuohy; I Henderson, N Williams, C Henry.

Referee: R Poite (France)

Irish Independent

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