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Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# tough day at the office
Ulster blown away as second-half blast ensures Saracens of home quarter-final
All is not lost for the northern province, however.

Saracens 33
Ulster 17

Rory Keane reports from Allianz Park

IT AIN’T PRETTY, but it’s pretty effective. Saracens will never win any popularity contests, but they are a tough, organised and disciplined outfit. They proved that once again at Allianz Park today.

Owen Farrell celebrates Duncan Taylor's try Morgan Treacy / INPHO Farrell celebrates his side's second try. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The Londoners have only tasted defeat once, in all competitions, this season. That loss coming against Harlequins in a thrilling encounter last weekend. These guys don’t lose very often.

Mark McCall has made Saracens an incredibly tough proposition and they well and truly proved that point with their fifth successive victory to claim top spot in Pool 1.

Ulster were well in this contest during a free-flowing first half. Living off inferior possession and territory, Les Kiss’ men played some excellent rugby with Luke Marshall’s early try a memorable score.

Jared Payne, Stuart McCloskey, Alan O’Connor and Sean Reidy put in big shifts but the home side simply had too much firepower.

This relentless Saracens machine just keeps on coming. Their set-piece is near perfect, their kick-chase always aggressive and accurate. They just keep hammering away until something gives and, inevitably, it does.

A Billy Vunipola try kept Saracens in the hunt during an error-strewn first half but it was all one-way traffic after the break as Duncan Taylor, Maro Itoje and replacement hooker Schalk Brits all crossed.

Substitute fly-half Ian Humpheys stemmed the tide as he intercepted Neil de Kock’s wayward pass in the closing stages but it was merely a consolation.

Jackson failed to find touch from the first kick-off inviting Saracens into the contest. A flurry of carries from the Vunipola brothers, amongst others, forced the first penalty of the afternoon which Farrell fired over with ease.

A scything break from McCloskey proved the catalyst for Ulster’s best attack of the half.

The powerful centre made big inroads before Franco van der Merwe, Payne and Kyle McCall carried on the attack. A strong carry from Alan O’Connor freed up extra pace for Payne who showed great vision to chip through for the onrushing Marshall who touched down for a superb score. Jackson nailed the touchline conversion to make it 7-3.

Rory Best with Will Fraser Presseye / Andrew Fosker/INPHO Rory Best breaks away from Will Fraser. Presseye / Andrew Fosker/INPHO / Andrew Fosker/INPHO

A powerful Sarries scrummage drew a penalty from the Ulster pack, but Farrell shanked the long-range effort. Rory Best dragged down a Saracens maul soon after, however, which allowed the England fly-half to cut Ulster’s lead to a single point in the 18th minute.

Frustration was beginning to creep into the Saracens ranks. First, Ransom spilled Pienaar’s bomb putting his side into all kinds of trouble. Minutes later, Wigglesworth was wrong-footed by Jackson’s probing kick with Sean Reidy doing great work on the deck to force a penalty, but Jackson sent the ensuing effort wide of the posts.

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Trailing 7-6, Saracens went back to their lineout drive as they sought to turn the screw just before the break. The pressure eventually told with Vunipola rumbling over. Farrell made no mistake with the touchline conversion.

Ulster needed a big response after the break and the forwards duly delivered. A surging lineout drive, spearheaded by the outstanding O’Connor, gave Jackson the opportunity to make it 13-10.

Replacement tighthead Ricky Lutton, who came on for Wiehahn Herbst late in the first half, was then pinged for not rolling away gifting an easy three-pointer to Farrell.

Ulster were showing all the hallmarks of a defence coached by Kiss, but something had to give as Farrell raced past O’Connor before sending Taylor in for a crucial try.

Saracens soon had their third try of the evening has their young lock Itoje, who was called up to England’s Elite Player Squad this week, powering over from close-range.

Things went from bad to worse for Ulster as Craig Gilroy was binned for hands in the ruck and soon after replacement hooker Brits was racing away for a bonus-point clinching try.

Duncan Taylor scores a try Morgan Treacy / INPHO Taylor dots down in the corner. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Humphreys, who replaced a Jackson on the hour mark, provided Ulster with some temporary respite with his intercept try.

All is not lost for Ulster with Oyonnax visiting Belfast in the final round, but today was a tough lesson from the English heayweights.

Saracens scorers:Tries: Billy Vunipola, Taylor, Itoje, Brits
Conversions: Farell [2]
Penalties: Farrell [3]

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Marshall, Humphreys
Conversions: Jackson [1], Humphreys [1]
Penalties: Jackson [1]

SARACENS: Ben Ransom (Hodgson ‘61); Chris Ashton (‘Taylor eg), Marcelo Bosch, Duncan Taylor, Chris Wyles; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth (De Kock ‘63); Mako Vunipola (Barrington ‘65), Jamie George (Brits 56), Petrus du Plessis; Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Michael Rhodes, Will Fraser (Wray ‘63), Billy Vunipola

Replacements not used: Juan Figallo, Jim Hamilton, Jackson Wray, Nick Tompkins.

ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall (Scholes ‘71), Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson (Humphreys ‘61), Ruan Pienaar (Marshall ‘75); Kyle McCall (Black ‘74), Rory Best (Herring ‘61), Wiehahn Herbst (Lutton ‘35); Alan O’Connor (Stevenson ‘74), Franco van der Merwe (Ross); Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Roger Wilson

Replacements not used: Rob Herring, Paul Marshall.

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