Super-human effort from 14-man Ulster falls agonisingly short
ULSTER 15 SARACENS 17
Fourteen-man Ulster suffered the ultimate Heineken Cup heartbreak at Ravenhill as they came up just short against Saracens.
Jared Payne’s harsh fifth minute red card left Mark Anscombe’s men with a mountain to climb, but they battled bravely in a match that lasted almost two hours and were still in the hunt in injury time.
Ultimately, Owen Farrell’s conversion of Chris Ashton’s 72nd minute try proved the difference between the teams on a night of intense drama.
It was the only kick the England fly-half made all night, but it gave his side an eight point lead that Ulster just couldn’t manage to bridge despite the best efforts of Paddy Jackson who kicked two long-range penalties to give his side a chance.
They managed to have possession for a marathon set of phases in the last play, going from side-to-side and threatening to break free without ever quite making it.
In the end, Robbie Diack got isolated and Brad Barritt forced the penalty from the hugely unpopular Jerome Garces and Farrell kicked it dead to secure victory.
The relief among the English Premiership leaders was palpable and they should have been far more comfortable than this after Payne saw red for taking Alex Goode out in the air in the fifth minute.
The full-back had his eye on the ball as he followed his own kick, but Goode flew through the air and was taken out, falling hard to ground and needed to be stretchered off.
That took an age and Garces used the time to review the incident on the big screen. It looked a yellow card, but the French official reached for red.
In the words of Saracens coach and former Ulster centre Mark McCall, it was “reckless, but not malicious”.
To compound that blow, Ulster’s talismanic figures of Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar were clearly struggling and the hooker was forced off after just 13 minutes.
The Springbok sent over a penalty but was clearly in trouble with his shoulder and he was at fault as Farrell slipped the ball to Chris Ashton off a solid scrum and the winger swerved outside Luke Marshall and dived over.
The fly-half missed his conversion and Pienaar brought his side in front once more after Saracens collapsed a driving Ulster maul and he extended the lead to four on the stroke of half time after Mako Vunipola collapsed a scrum.
He lasted just nine minutes of the second-half, however, as the brilliant Schalk Brits burst through his tackle on the right wing.
Saracens moved the ball left, where Billy Vunipola made gains and eventually they managed to get over through the powerful Mouritz Botha.
Again, Farrell couldn’t convert but the pressure kept building. Anscombe emptied his bench and the defence was heroic as the England star sent a penalty wide after a Luke Marshall deliberate knock on.
He made his mark with ball in hand, however, as heroic defending from Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble - who looked shaky after a heavy blow to the head from tackling Brits, and Tommy Bowe denied Botha and Chris Wyles.
The ball was held up and, from the scrum, Billy Vunipola slipped Chris Henry’s tackle and Farrell cross-kicked for Ashton who had the simplest of finishes.
Farrell nailed his toughest kick, but back came Ulster and indiscipline from Kelly Brown and Mako Vunipola gave Jackson the kicks to make it a two point game.
They tried everything, but the 14-men couldn’t make it over.
Their European wait goes on, but their crowd proudly stood to acclaim their heroic effort on an unforgettable night.
ULSTER – J Payne ; A Trimble (C Gilroy 62) , D Cave , L Marshall , T Bowe ; P Jackson , R Pienaar (P Marshall 49); T Court , R Best (R Herring 13) , J Afoa ; J Muller (capt) (R Diack 69), D Tuohy (I Henderson 60); R Wilson , C Henry , N Williams (S Ferris 55).
SARACENS – A Goode (C Wyles 5); C Ashton, D Taylor (C Hodgson 11), B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 69); M Vunipola (R Barrington 74), S Brits, J Johnston (M Stevens 47); S Borthwick (capt), M Botha; B Vunipola, J Burger, E Joubert (K Brown 65).
Referee: J Garces (France)