Ulster were taught big lesson by Saracens, admits Kiss
Saracens 33 Ulster 17
Ulster head coach Les Kiss admitted his team were taught a lesson at Allianz Park and feels Saracens are the greatest threat to Toulon's reign as champions.
"We're extremely disappointed, to tell you the truth. They teach us a lesson each time we play them," Kiss said. "At the beginning of the season, I said the one team that will challenge Toulon will be Saracens. Each week my belief in that statement becomes stronger."
For their part, Ulster's route to the quarter-finals has become more tricky after once again failing to take a single point against the English giants.
With only three progressing to the quarter-finals, Ulster know that even if they beat Oyonnax handsomely with four tries on Saturday, it may not be enough.
"The truth is that we have to get five points and we also have to sit and wait for a couple of other results that we don't control," Kiss said.
"It's not the ideal position to be in, but this is a weird competition that every year does something different.
"We'll see what happens, but we didn't look after the things that we could have and we have to make sure we do that now this week to put pressure on the rest of the competition."
The Australian cut a frustrated figure after the contest, feeling his side failed to maintain the standards that had them leading the game as half-time neared.
A pair of lost lineouts, both stolen by Michael Rhodes, undermined their efforts to carry an advantage into the break, with Kiss displeased by the response after the turn.
"We've got great fight, some great qualities, but we need to work smarter when elements of the game don't go our way," he said.
"Ultimately, we had a chance to at least get one point and didn't manage it. If we had done the right things in the first half a bit longer, it could have pushed the game, but we just gave them that chance. We just didn't respond in the second half."
Having been comprehensively beaten by the European favourites in Belfast under two months ago, it was a similar story in London on Saturday.
Once again, Ulster were able to ask questions of their rivals for almost an hour, but just as occurred at Kingspan, the final stages would give the scoreboard a look of the routine.
Ulster had led for much of the first half, thanks to a fine team try finished by Luke Marshall, but failed to add to their advantage before half-time.
Hopes of at least what would have been a priceless losing bonus point flickered briefly when Paddy Jackson reduced the arrears early in the second half with a penalty, but scores from Duncan Taylor, Maro Itoje and Schalk Brits rendered the closing stages academic.
Saracens' attack was ignited by the contributions of a bright Owen Farrell whose performance was hailed by coach Mark McCall. "I thought Owen was brilliant, he was outstanding," McCall said. "He had a great game."
For Kiss' men, it all meant another day to forget, but when the game concluded, it was easy to forget just how different things had seemed in the early stages.
A Farrell penalty had given the hosts a lead after just three minutes, but a scintillating break from Stuart McCloskey set up Ulster for their only points of the half. The centre broke from deep, searing past the Saracens defensive line, as the ball was moved from left to right.
Roger Wilson, Franco van der Merwe and Kyle McCall all took their turn to barge forward, with Saracens knocking on in their attempt to halt the pack, but advantage in hand, the returning Jared Payne produced a measured grubber for Marshall to score his third European try of the season. Jackson converted.
A scrum penalty offered the Premiership champions an almost immediate reprieve, but Farrell was off target. As the game entered its second quarter, he, this time, did provide three points, but with a chance to take the lead after McCloskey was pinged for holding on, the number 10 did not connect as desired.
With an advantage to use, Ruan Pienaar tried a snapped drop goal that arrowed wide of the posts, but rather than attempt another kick, Ulster signalled for the corner.
When Rhodes rose above the Ulster jumpers, the chance for a score before the half became considerably less likely. Ulster still had possession after Saracens cleared to the sideline, but when Rhodes again pinched Best's dart from touch, the opportunity was lost.
As half-time loomed, momentum decidedly swung. Jackson missed a kickable penalty after Andrew Trimble and Reidy had combined to force Richard Wigglesworth into transgressing and, with a minimal in-goal area, Trimble's kick bounced dead moments later, with Wiehahn Herbst penalised at the resulting scrum.
Saracens quickly went for the corner and, from the second attempt, the younger Vunipola was driven across the line by his forward colleagues. Farrell converted and Ulster would not lead again.
The half-time scoreline of 13-7 would have been a wholly acceptable outcome for Ulster though, a potential point which could have made all the difference to their quarter-final hopes, and Jackson's early penalty in the second half made matters look all the more promising. Saracens' response was clinical.
First, substitute tighthead Ricky Lutton was caught playing the ball on the ground to allow another Farrell three-pointer before a trio of tries in 10 minutes ended the game as a contest.
With little under half an hour remaining, Saracens were racking up the phases with little reward and when the ball went loose, Ulster sensed the opportunity for a crucial turnover. As Kruis scooped the loose ball in the direction of Chris Ashton, however, the loss of defensive shape ended up pivotal.
The England wing broke before releasing Farrell who accelerated into space. With Payne outnumbered, the try by Taylor was inevitable.
On the hour, the impressive Itoje was rewarded with the simple task of lifting the ball over the line after Brits had gone within a matter of inches and, as Craig Gilroy went to the sin-bin, the hooker scored himself after breaking off a maul and exploiting a size mismatch with Ian Humphreys.
The outhalf would make a more positive contribution for the game's last points, when he intercepted the pass of Neil de Kock and had just enough gas to scamper home from inside his own half.
Saracens - B Ransom (C Hodgson, 63) ; C Ashton, M Bosch (N Tompkins, 70) , D Taylor, C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 63) ; M Vunipola (R Barrington, 66) , J George (S Brits, 56) , P du Plessis (J Figallo, 56) ; M Itoje, G Kruis; M Rhodes, W Fraser (J Wray, 63), B Vunipola.
Ulster - J Payne (R Scholes, 70); A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson (I Humphreys, 63) , R Pienaar (P Marshall, 74) ; K McCall (C Black,74) R Best (c) (R Herring, 61) , W Herbst , 35) ; A O'Connor (L Stevenson, 74) , F van der Merwe (C Ross, 68) ; R Diack, S Reidy, R Wilson.
Ref - J Garces (France)