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Anscombe takes dire Ulster display on chin

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Ulster's Paddy Jackson shows his disappointment as he leaves the pitch after the game.

Ulster's Paddy Jackson shows his disappointment as he leaves the pitch after the game.

Ulster's Paddy Jackson shows his disappointment as he leaves the pitch after the game.

A few days after Ulster spanked Northampton Saints in Franklin's Gardens last January to win their 13th successive game, a local paper carried a comprehensive feature that now smacks of excessive hubris.

"Is this the greatest Ulster team of all time?" the 'Belfast Telegraph' rhetorically wondered. Director of rugby David Humphreys must have cringed.

A week later, Northampton won the return match and suddenly the wheels started to come off Ulster's season.

The greatest team of all time? Ulster now aren't even as good as last season, when at least they could say they unloaded all they had before being subjugated by a superior Leinster force in the final of this competition.

After Saturday's tamest of submissions against a Saracens side who barely needed to shift from their preferred, remorselessly repetitive first gear of battering, defensive excellence, Ulster are now further than ever before from regaining their title as European champions.

"We'll still be a good team tomorrow," said a grimly realistic coach Mark Anscombe. They certainly were not that on Saturday and, although Anscombe wouldn't trade in the familiar language of excuses – "we were beaten by the better team" – it was important for him to remind all of a few facts.

Afflicted

Since that now seemingly superstitious-laden win number 13, Ulster have been afflicted by the national virus of injury. For most, or all, of the time since that newspaper headline, Paddy Wallace, Johann Muller, Tommy Bowe, Chris Henry and Nick Williams – not to mention long-term absentee Stephen Ferris – have been crocked.

And they have palpably struggled to stop the bleeding since. Compounding the woe is the inability to patch a first-choice team together in a back-to-back sequence for some time now.

Last week's extraordinary effort against Leinster now looks like an attempt to pack two weeks' work into one night; another reason for an appallingly flat level of performance here that, from the opening minute, handed the initiative to the English league leaders.

"We were clearly beaten, there is no doubt about that and I think Saracens are a bloody good team," said Anscombe. "So, there is no other reason for that.

"The fact is, unfortunately, we have had a good few injuries this year. We had most probably in the team out there today eight or nine guys who haven't had two full games behind their backs in the last six weeks.

"You're not going to get away with that against quality like Saracens. That's circumstance, that happened and it is not an excuse. We're not looking for an excuse, I'm just telling you the reason we are where we're at."

Still, it was difficult to excuse such lethargy and laxness. For many of the Ulster supporters, it appeared as if their side succumbed to their fate with the merest shrug of resignation.

Despite speaking all week about not being submerged by Saracens' suffocating defence, of committing to an offensive game plan, of ensuring that accuracy reigned supreme in all areas, Ulster delivered on none of these hardly over-arching promises.

The real regret in the hours and days and weeks to come will attach itself to the nagging feeling that Ulster never really engineered a decent blow on the host fighters; Ernst Joubert's remarkably skewed nose was not really an accurate reflection of the day's narrative.

A jarring passivity attended Ulster's display, compounded by a raft of errors that emerged in nearly all facets of their game from shambolic line-out to diffident restarts – even when their scrum dominated in the first half, they failed to maintain the pattern after the break.

exacerbated

Paddy Jackson was sitting so deep that he may as well have been standing in the nearby Twickenham Stoop, Ulster's kick-off receptions and breakdown work was not up to scratch (compounding Romain Poite's now inevitable eccentricities) while a poor kicking game was exacerbated by a lousy chase.

On the sidelines, seemingly stunned by his side's weariness and wariness, Anscombe too was equally passive.

True, his bench was less impactful than most, particularly in the forwards, but with his side needing to chase the game from an early juncture, or at the very least attempting to force the opposition to deviate from their singularly one-dimensional approach, not introducing Paul Marshall was a glaring error.

Never mind Ulster having bad memories of this cabbage patch in south-west London; Jackson may not want to see the place again for some time. With Ian Madigan overtaking him with ease as an international contender, it may be some time before he returns.

For luckless Luke Marshall, reeling from his third concussion in a month, there are now serious question marks already over his future in the game and it is unlikely – indeed it is utterly unnecessary – that he will play again this season.

Ultimately, it all turned out to be so deflating for last May's finalists who must now endeavour to re-engage with the Pro12 as a consolation after a nightmare afternoon.

"In these big games you need to get on a roll early and when you get on a roll it builds energy in a group and it builds enthusiasm," offered Anscombe.

"We just never got going, they got a couple of good hits on us, contested and turned over a bit of our ball. The line-out, they were growing on that.

"With the hard knocks of last week, and the lack of rugby, self doubt can come in and that has an effect. We are still going to be a good team tomorrow. We didn't become a bad team today. We'll take it on the chin."

Pressed as to why he didn't make any changes at half-back to augment Bowe's sparkling and timely intervention from the bench and the exciting Stuart Olding's all too belated zip, Anscombe was typically forthright.

"Paul Marshall is not going to win the breakdown for us," he responded when asked had he pondered half-back surgery.

"They were areas they were dominating us. We weren't getting the go-forward ball that we got last week, to be able to ask questions of the defence.

"There was some self-doubt early on and we didn't really believe in ourselves enough."

Ulster could have carped about the first try concession when they, not Saracens, should have been awarded a line-out from which John Afoa lazily engaged with the English maul when his team-mates were trying to force the penalty.

Will Fraser tumbled over and if Sarries looked comfortable even at 3-0 and 6-3, well then 16-9 seemed virtually unassailable. They cantered home thereafter and will return here for a semi-final in three weeks.

For poor Ulster, tomorrow cannot come quickly enough as they attempt to evict another Twickenham terror from their memories.

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.

Ref – R Poite (France).

Irish Independent