Saturday 24 March 2018

Payne return may not be enough to save Ulster's neck

Ulster's Jared Payne during yesterday's captain's run at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast (SPORTSFILE)
Ulster's Jared Payne during yesterday's captain's run at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast (SPORTSFILE)
David Kelly

David Kelly

That Ulster will spend a fretful week scouring for helpful results elsewhere in Europe owes a lot to their humiliating home reverse to today's opposition in round one.

So much has happened since then but it is still possible that their opening day horror show may ultimately define their European campaign.

Losing was painful enough, particularly when they were zealously competitive for an hour, but the lack of even a losing bonus point may prove costly even as they try to snag one of the last qualifying berths.

This re-match has been in their minds for some time; the same is true for Ulster's erstwhile coach, Mark McCall, whose Saracens side ceded the last unbeaten run in Europe last weekend.

"Possibly the worst time they could have done so," sighs Ulster wing Craig Gilroy, whose side also patently took their eye off the ball in Oyonnax last weekend when their predominantly second string - albeit with a strong scrum - proved not fit for purpose.

Amidst all the euphoria about Rory Best's rallying interval war cries - which would have been rendered redundant had the pack he led managed to put in a mental and physical shift - the lack of a bonus point last week could, too, be fatal to the last Irish Champions Cup survivor.

And so their eyes will be cast elsewhere for much of this weekend and next - when they will presumably bag five against Oyonnax - beginning with last night's action and also embracing their Irish cousins.

Leinster's necessarily selfish nod to their future has not done much to aid Ulster's immediate status in the competition as Bath chase one of the final few last-eight slots also.

Of course, those Ulster supporters who sip from half-full glasses will assume that a side who could so thoroughly destroy the four-time champions Toulouse with that blistering back-to-back sequence should not fear today's challenge.

Sadly, Toulouse are no longer part of a golden age of Europe but fallen giants; Saracens are the coming force and, rather than fearing an upset today, their focus is on ensuring they grab a crucial home ties in the last eight.

Ulster's chances are at least given a kick-start with the welcome seasonal debut of Kiwi-born Ireland full-back Jared Payne, restored to his best position; given that former Ireland assistant Les Kiss is giving his team more licence to play than it seemed he was allowed with Ireland, that is significant. Ulster make seven changes to the side that beat Oyonnax last week, with Andrew Trimble, Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson joining Payne.

It is Payne's first start since his World Cup was ended prematurely by a foot problem and it means Craig Gilroy shifts to the left wing, with Trimble reverting to the right while Louis Ludik's injury accommodates Payne's return.

The backline, with the midfield purring and the half-back axis on top of their game, looks to be mightily impressive.

Sadly, the pack does not, allowing for the return of Wiehahn Herbst after a calf strain; Chris Henry has been ruled out with a shoulder complaint and Nick Williams is also sidelined and the back-row is hence severely underwhelming.

McCall fields seven of the eight Saracens players named this week in Eddie Jones' England squad, with full-back Alex Goode missing out because of a slight knock.

This may be of some relief to Payne, sent off for an aerial challenge on the Englishman in the early minutes of a contentious quarter-final clash between these sides in Belfast two seasons ago - when the same referee, Jerome Garces, was in charge.

If that is not a good omen, there are few others as Saracens seek the victory that will qualify them for the knock-outs.

They have won seven successive games on their 3G pitch and Ulster have only once, in 2005, managed to overcome the English behemoths in six attempts. Indeed, they have shipped exactly 100 points on their last three trips here.

"We respect them so much but we have shown anyone can be beaten on their day," offers Gilroy.

Sadly, this will not be Ulster's as their anxious qualification quest enters a final week.

Verdict: Saracens

Saracens - B Ransom; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt (c), C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, P du Plessis, M Itoje, G Kruis, M Rhodes, W Fraser, B Vunipola. Reps: S Brits, R Barrington, J Figallo, J Hamilton, J Wray, N de Kock, C Hodgson, D Taylor.

Ulster - J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (c), W Herbst; A O'Connor, F Van der Merwe; R Diack, S Reidy, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, C Black, R Lutton, L Stevenson, C Ross, P Marshall, I Humphreys, R Scholes.

Ref - J Garces (France).

Saracens v Ulster, Live, BT Sport, 3.15

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