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‘Bonus point was beyond our wildest dreams’: McCall’s Saracens setting the standard in Europe

With wins over Toulouse and Ulster under their belt, might this finally be the English champions’ year in Europe?

Sean Farrell reports from Kingspan Stadium

WHETHER THE CALCULATIONS are ever blurted out loud or not, most of us can’t help working out a few quick permutations on the way to coming up with a number that would be a successful return when looking at any block of fixtures.

Yet even for a team as bullishly confident as Saracens, nine points from their two opening matches against Toulouse and Ulster must be well above any realistic expectation.

A bonus point win in Belfast didn’t look likely after 30 minutes in Kingspan Stadium last night. Mark McCall’s men were shipping penalties, losing ground at the breakdown and on the scoreboard as Paddy Jackson set them nine points adrift.

Mark McCall Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

But from there on in, they won 0 – 27, putting four tries on a team that prided itself on defence long before bringing Ireland’s specialist Les Kiss in as Director of Rugby. The unmovable object, was not Ulster’s rearguard here, it belonged to the visitors.

“It’s been a strength of ours over the years,” Ulster native McCall said post-match.

“It’s gone to a new level. I think we’ve only conceded four or five tries so far in the season.”

(It’s only three, Mark, but who’s counting? Go on…)

“It’s a fundamental part of our game. We’ve got a really good defence coach in Paul Gustard and we’re hopeful Eddie Jones doesn’t call him over the next couple of days.”

The defence accounts for Ulster’s 55 minutes without a score in what was once a fortress. But with Owen Farrell unable to find a rhythm off the kicking tee, this was a night for a department that is often unsung in comparison to the more solid totems Sarries can boast: the irresistible force of their attack.

Devastating

From the moment Alex Goode raced onto Owen Farrell’s 31st minute pass, Ulster knew that this was not to be an off night for the English champions after all.

Goode followed up that killer line and pass with a devastating chip into the path of Duncan Taylor, whose offload allowed Goode give his side the lead. After that, Ulster looked punch drunk. The rain was already washing away their hopes of running into the wind when Owen Farrell pierced the line to kill the game by sending Taylor in for try number three.

What’s more. The latter two of those three tries came with Billy Vunipola in the sin-bin. What should have been a profitable line-out position for Ulster to build their lead against 14 men, took a sharp downturn.

“We dominated the start of the second half pressure-wise, position-wise,” says McCall who will add that the field position was largely down to the wind at their backs thanks to a lucky toss of a coin pre-match.

Allen Clarke and Mark McCall Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

“Billy got sin-binned, but we defended that really well, won ourselves a penalty and the next eight minutes were wonderful.

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“A really good strong, resilient team performance.”

After a similarly strong team showing at home to Toulouse last weekend, Saracens are well and truly in the driving seat in Pool 1 and their December double header offers the temptation to conjure up a number that would all-but qualify them for the quarter-finals a month early.

McCall though, is wary that Ulster’s postponed fixture may yet come back to bite him:

“We were hoping that Ulster would be the first team to face Oyonnax away in a Champions Cup match, but it looks like it’s going to be us.

“We’ve got to go there and do a really good professional job and then bring them to our place.

“If we can win those two games we’d be in a good position.”

A good position, and the best-placed club to finally break this tournament’s Toulonopoly.

Goode grief: Ulster undone as Saracens claim bonus point in Belfast

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Sean Farrell

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