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Incredible 14-man performance from Ulster comes up short against Saracens

Jared Payne’s early red card turned the tide irreversibly in Saracens’ favour.

Ulster's Paddy Jacksopn, John Afoa and Robbie Diack dejected at the final whistle.
Ulster's Paddy Jacksopn, John Afoa and Robbie Diack dejected at the final whistle.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ulster 15

Saracens 17

ULSTER QUICKLY MOVED from slight favourites to rank outsiders in this Heineken Cup quarter-final in front of an angry capacity crowd at Ravenhill

The game was shaped by Jared Payne’s fifth minute red card, but despite the incredibly harsh setback, Ulster and their supporters found themselves united by a need to right the wrong.

Payne had earlier overcooked a tactical kick out on the full and when he chased a ball hoisted over Alex Goode, the fullback appeared to get lost during the flight and he took the English international out at the apex of his leap.

After a long stoppage for treatment to Goode and deliberation from the TMO, referee Jerome Garces came to the conclusion that it was worthy of a rare straight red card and the home side’s fate appeared sealed.

It was a hammer blow for Ulster, and they were soon dealt another when Rory Best was forced off through injury. This team, however, has come on too great a journey to simply lie down when challenges become steeper than planned. The crowd booed, whistled and roared as Johann Muller played the part of a true captain, along with Dan Tuohy dragging Saracens into a dogfight when they wished to change tack to open rugby.

Owen Farrell’s goal-kicking radar was off, and he would miss his opening four kicks at goal including both attempts in the first half while Ruan Pienaar picked off three on Ulster’s frantic raids into opposition territory.

Saracens made what a critical breakthrough after the Springbok’s first, a reverse pass off the back of a line-out move opening up the hosts’ right flank so that Chris Ashton could dust off his unloved trademark celebration after brushing off a tackle from Luke Marshall.

That, however, was as good as it got for Saracens in a nail-biting first-half. Ulster’s pack harassed and harangued them at every turn, and every minor victory was greeted with a guttural roar.

Few were louder than that which greeted Pienaar’s third success from four attempts on the stroke of half-time, and Best had hobbled his way to the tunnel in time to commend his side on carving a 9 – 5 lead out of an impossible seeming first half.

The second half began in suitably raucous fashion, however, Mark McCall’s decision to throw Charlie Hodgson into the mix gave the visitors an extra dimension which sapped the Ulster defence of its energy.

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By the 48th minute, the white line had been stretched to breaking point and with Pienaar departing the scene shortly after, it appeared as if that would finally be that. And yet, back they came, a side unwilling to be put out of their misery even after Farrell’s best kick of the night, a cross-field kick to Ashton to allow him claim a second, was followed up by his only successful attempt on goal.

Drill

9 – 17 and game over. Except nobody told the incoming Ulster replacements. They would force two more penalties just inside Saracens half, brilliantly drilled home by Jackson to set up a finish that must have had Mark McCall feeling sympathy for Northampton on their famous last-gasp defeat to Ronan O’Gara and Munster.

On this occasion, however, the 40 phases barely made a dent in the black and red wall and the game came to a shuddering halt with the blast of Garces’ whistle for a carrier holding on.

Ulster must go away to lick their wounds at another painful European exit. Saracens advance to another European semi-final, when Clermont Auvergne will arrive in London hoping that the final Heineken Cup can provide a sweet end to their long European odyssey.

Scorers

Ulster

Penalties: Pienaar (3) Jackson (2).

Saracens

Try: Ashton (2), Botha.

Conversion: Farrell.

Ulster: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Tommy Bowe; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar: Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa; Johann Muller (c), Dan Tuohy; Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Ricky Lutton, Iain Henderson, Stephen Ferris, Robbie Diack, Paul Marshall, Craig Gilroy.

Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, James Johnston; Steve Borthwick (c), Mouritz Botha; Billy Vunipola, Jacques Burger, Ernst Joubert.

Replacements: Jamie George, Richard Barrington, Matt Stevens, Eoin Sheriff, Kelly Brown, Neil de Kock, Charlie Hodgson, Chris Wyles.

As it happened: Ulster v Saracens, Heineken Cup quarter-final

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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