Ulster left scrambling as four-try Saracens show ruthless quality
Ulster 9 Saracens 27
Published 21/11/2015 | 02:30
This time Ulster could have no complaints. Sure, there was another controversial call from a French referee due to a tackle in the air that didn't go their way but on the evidence of the 80 minutes the extra man would have been wasted on them.
They did play against a 14-man Saracens for 20 minutes and came out of those periods 12-3 down.
Like Leinster last week, they struggled to break down the English side's defence and, although they ran into a 9-0 lead, they didn't score for the remaining 53 minutes of the game.
The English champions were in unforgiving mood and left Belfast in complete control of Pool 1 after making it successive bonus-point wins in rounds one and two. Ulster now go to face Toulouse back-to-back before Christmas needing results.
Perhaps it was inevitable given the two teams involved that this clash would open with a tackle in the air and a decision for the French referee.
Judged by the criteria applied by Jerome Garces to Jared Payne in the infamous 2014 quarter-final between these teams, Michael Rhodes thundering into an airborne Andrew Trimble was a certain red card.
However, despite the home crowd baying for blood, Romain Poite opted for leniency and issued the Saracens flanker with a yellow. He was very lucky.
Playing with a strong wind at their backs, Ulster needed to exploit their man advantage but Ruan Pienaar was short with his long-range penalty and, when Alex Goode skewed his clearance, Rory Best's throw went awry.
Owen Farrell missed a chance to put his side in front after Paddy Jackson infringed at a ruck and although Ulster did apply some pressure at the end of the 10 minutes Rhodes was in the sin-bin, they only came away with a penalty as Jackson punished Brad Barritt's high tackle.
Les Kiss would have been happy with how things were going, however, with his team on top at the breakdown and Nick Williams doing damage with ball in hand.
Jackson doubled his side's lead with a neat drop-goal before Jacques Burger tackled Williams without using his arms and the Ireland out-half made it 9-0.
They looked comfortable, but the English champions stepped things up a notch and began making life uncomfortable for the home defence.
The visitors fired a warning shot when Rhodes broke up the left and tried to put Owen Farrell away, only for Jackson to get a hand in to disrupt, but Sarries kept the pressure on and Goode's deft chip forced Pienaar to give away a lineout on his own five-metre line. Saracens went off the top at the tail and Farrell's brilliant pass put Goode into space and had Trimble scrambling. Louis Ludik sensed danger and stepped off his wing allowing his opposite number to send Chris Wyles over in the corner.
Farrell couldn't convert from the touchline and missed a second penalty attempt before half-time, but Kiss would have been concerned with some of his side's inaccurate moments as the break approached and, while Ulster led 9-5 at the break, it was Sarries who went to the dressing-room on top. They were given an early invite into enemy territory early on in the second half as Ulster messed up the restart and that set the tone for a dire second 40 for the hosts.
Mako Vunipola began to turn the screw on Wiehann Herbst at scrum time, allowing Sarries exert more pressure.
The hosts were having to defend constantly and escaped when Richard Wigglesworth beat Best to Wyles' chip only to knock on, but a loose pass from the Sarries scrum-half allowed Iain Henderson thunder into opposition territory. His march was halted by Billy Vunipola's shoulder and, when Poite took a look on the big screen, the England No 8 was sent to the sin-bin.
This was another chance for Ulster who still led on the scoreboard. Jackson kicked to touch, but from sloppy lineout ball the men in white couldn't breach the black wall in front of them and Jamie George forced a penalty.
Saracens went up the other end and again showed that they are the more clinical team. With Poite signalling penalty advantage, Goode chipped over the top for Duncan Taylor who drew Ludik and Trimble's attention and offloaded for the full-back who raced over.
Farrell converted and Ulster were behind for the first time.
As the sleety rain began to fall again, the home side just couldn't get out of their own half.
Farrell dummied a drop-goal and sent Taylor through a gap only for Ulster to scramble and escape, but the England out-half liked it so much he did it again, dummying past Jackson and Van der Merwe and sending Taylor over the line. He missed the conversion, but Vunipola returned with the complexion of the game changed utterly.
Farrell extended the lead with a penalty for a scrum offence under the posts when they might have gone for a fourth try, but it came in the end with Rory Best gone to the sin-bin as Billy Vunipola scored off the back of an unstoppable rolling maul.
Ulster - L Ludik (P Nelson 75); A Trimble, D Cave, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson (I Humphreys 70), R Pienaar (P Marshall 76); C Black (K McCall 59), R Best (capt), W Herbst (R Lutton 70); D Tuohy, F van der Merwe (R Diack 67); I Henderson, C Henry (R Wilson 50-55, 67), N Williams (R Herring 67).
Saracens - A Goode; C Ashton, D Taylor (M Bosch 70), B Barritt (capt) (C Hodgson 77), C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 77); M Vunipola, S Brits (J George 52), P du Plessis; G Kruis, M Itoje (A Hargreaves 77); M Rhodes (J Wray 59), J Burger, B Vunipola.
Ref - R Poite (France)