Sarries secure home quarter-final with crushing defeat of Ulster
Saracens 33 Ulster 17
The trip to Allianz Park in the far north of London is like landing in a place where not long ago there was nothing - and now there is a pop-up rugby stadium. And in that stadium there is a team who knows the lie of the land better than anyone and plays accordingly.
Never beaten at this venue in European competition, they were -12 points on the handicap, which illustrated the scale of the climb for Ulster, whose mission was to stay within seven of their hosts, thus promoting their chance of passage to the knockout stages via the best runners up berths.
If they are to complete that journey then it will be by the skin of their teeth, even allowing for five points next weekend at home to Oyonnax.
For half the contest here, played in perfect if pretty cold conditions in front of the 9,462 crowd, Ulster were competitive and suggested they might get something from the game. Yet the aggregate of things that Saracens were better at was a lot higher than Ulster's.
Like their exits, especially after scoring; the quality of their kick chase; their lineout at 92 per cent versus 67 per cent; their discipline - three penalties fewer conceded. Over the course of 80 minutes all that stuff adds up, and it crushed Ulster. Saracens are the epitome of an 80-minute outfit.
With the Six Nations around the corner, there was some decent news for Joe Schmidt, though. He may be stuck for second-rows but his options at midfield are not too shabby, and both Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall were good again. Jared Payne too looked okay for a man so short on game-time.
The report on Paddy Jackson, however, will be less positive. He struggles to get a run of good things together in his play, whether it's kicking off the tee or out of hand. And it's a killer to a team trying to build momentum.
Given the direction of the traffic - Sarries had 67 percent territory - it was much easier for his opposite number to look good, and sure enough Owen Farrell picked up the man of the match award. It wasn't for his goal-kicking, which at five out of nine should give you a feel for what the final tally might have been like. But he distributed well and looked accomplished in a team that are, to a man, utterly clued in to the style of play. It's not flash, but neither is it as bad as their reputation suggests. And against weaker teams it is hugely effective.
"It's what they do well," said Les Kiss afterwards. "When they get territory they are clinical and make it pay. We were trying to react our way out of things and became exposed. We would have expected better in the second half."
For the first period they were competitive enough, turning over 7-13 at the break. In the space of the opening five minutes, Ulster had experienced both sides of life: first, a poor clearing kick from Jackson on their first exit led to the opening penalty chance for his Farrell. Three nil to the home team. Two minutes later, however, a lovely break from McCloskey gave Ulster a foothold in Saracens territory, and from there Payne, on an advantage play, dinked a lovely ball in behind for Marshall to score.
Jackson's conversion gave them a 7-3 lead which was the perfect springboard. What they needed thereafter was some possession and territory. They got a reasonable amount of the first, but the combination of the Sarries defence and their coverage of the backfield made that tricky.
The bonus for Less Kiss's team was that Saracens were so loose elsewhere. Farrell's shooting was ordinary - 50 per cent from his first four - and they put down enough ball to give Mark McCall palpitations.
With so much ball and territory, they were able to keep their shape handily, however, and the away team had a horrendous close to the half. Jackson missed a handy penalty, then Wiehahn Herbst hobbled off with a foot injury having conceded a scrum penalty - he is doubtful for the weekend - followed by his replacement Ricky Lutton being done at a maul inside a minute of coming on. That allowed Billy Vunipola to score off a lineout maul.
"That maul had to be reset so it was a very good try," Mark McCall said. "It gave us confidence for the second half."
Jackson closed the gap to three early in that second half, but from there until the final quarter Sarries simply squeezed their opponents. An intercept from replacement Ian Humphreys was the only break in the flow as the home team raced out to a bonus-point win, which guarantees them top of the pool and a home quarter-final. Ulster might have to be careful what they wish for.
"We had minutes that were good, but we didn't have 80 minutes that were good," Kiss said. "We've got to take that hurt and transition it into a reaction next week."
Scorers - Saracens: B Vunipola, Taylor, Itoje, Brits try each; Farrell 3 pens, 2 cons; Ulster: Humphreys try, con; Marshall try; Jackson pen, con.
Saracens: B Ransom (C Hodgson 62); C Ashton, M Bosch (N Tomkins 67), D Taylor, C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 62); M Vunipola (R Barrington 66), J George (S Brits 57), P du Plessis (J Figallo 57), M Itoje, G Kruis, M Rhodes, B Vunipola, W Fraser (J Wray 64).
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall (R Scholes 72), S McCloskey, C Gilroy (yc 62-72); P Jackson (I Humphreys 62), R Pienaar (P Marshall 76); K McCall C Black 75), R Best (capt)(R Herring 62), W Herbst ( R Lutton 36), A O'Connor (L Stevenson 76, F van der Merwe, R Diack, R Wilson, S Reidy.
Referee: J Garces (France)
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