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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Bryan Keane/INPHO Craig Gilroy chipped in with two tries for Ulster (file photo).
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Ulster hammer Saracens to end pre-season on a high
Dan McFarland’s side recorded a 33-3 win in London.

Saracens 3

Ulster 33

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a week can make and what a different feeling there will be around Kingspan Stadium heading into the start of the new season compared to last week.

If there was a general sense of trepidation after their 45-21 loss to Saracens in Belfast last Friday, Ulster will now be chomping at the bit to get their United Rugby Championship season up and running after thumping the same opponents 33-3 at the Honourable Artillery Company on a pleasant Thursday evening.

Buoyed by the returns of most of his Ireland internationals, Dan McFarland’s side took advantage of an early yellow card to establish their lead, but in the second half they were ruthless at both ends of the pitch, carving out three tries at one end and mercilessly shutting the door at the other.

Perhaps most pleasing for the coaching staff is that the internationals were not the players that stood out most. James Hume and Nick Timoney both had strong cameos and Billy Burns ran things well from fly-half, but it was the efforts of those around them that caught the eye.

Bradley Roberts has surely done all he can to stake a claim to start at hooker against Glasgow in two weeks’ time after an all-action 45-minute outing, winger Craig Gilroy notched a double as he goes in search of his 200th appearance, while replacement Ethan McIlroy – seemingly deployed at centre despite having played exclusively in the back three to this point – also dazzled.

Even outside of the performances there was a significant positive to take as John Cooney made his long-awaited return following a lengthy injury lay-off at the tail end of last season, and went three-from-three from the tee. Perhaps seeing him back in a gold jersey – Ulster were sporting their new alternate jerseys in London – would have brought on the biggest smile of all from McFarland.

While there will be plenty of water thrown on the fire to try and distil expectations off the back of a pre-season result, there is no doubt that this was a marked improvement on that which Ulster produced at Kingspan Stadium a week prior, when they were run ragged by the same opponents in a devastating first half.

Their statement of intent started early, too, and it was one of their returning internationals, Robert Baloucoune, who came up with the first significant moment when he held Ben Earl up over the line to prevent a Saracens try and, after weathering an early storm, the Irish province sprang into life.

They were helped when Nick Isiekwe was binned for 10 minutes for preventing Cooney taking a quick tap penalty and, from the line-out, it was another Irish international, Timoney, who thumped over the line from close range for the opening score, before some quick hands from Burns and Michael Lowry sent Gilroy over in the corner for their second.

Getting increasingly frustrated by what was a resolute defence from the visitors, Saracens made the somewhat surprising decision to get on the board as Lozowski dinked over a penalty, but the hosts soon found themselves shorthanded again as Nick Tompkins was shown yellow for a dangerous clear-out on Roberts.

This period wouldn’t yield any more scores, but after the restart when a host of replacements flooded on, it was Ulster’s bench who still looked the sharper and, inevitably, found the line again.

This time it would be replacement Angus Curtis who would scamper over, the centre found on the blindside where he had the pace to go around Earl and then the strength to barrel through Sean Maitland for Ulster’s third, and that was quickly followed by their fourth as quick hands from Lowry and McIlroy put Gilroy in for his second of the evening.

And having been dismantled a week prior in the maul, it was only fair that Ulster returned the favour, their maul clicking just after the hour mark to round off the scoring as John Andrew popped up with the ball in his hands after the set-piece trundled over the line.

But while McFarland will come away thrilled with their attacking nous, he will equally be delighted with how they never gave in towards the end of the game despite being reduced to 14 men when Andrew was the guilty party at the end of a string of offences, shutting the door emphatically on Saracens and keeping them from breaching the whitewash once.

Joel Kpoku came closest, the lock stretching for the line but dropping the ball in the act of scoring just a minute from the final whistle, leaving the province to celebrate what they will deny is a morale-boosting victory but will no doubt leave them very happy indeed.

Saracens scorers:

Penalty: Lozowski

Yellow card: Isiekwe, Tompkins

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Ulster scorers:

Tries: Timoney, Gilroy (2), Curtis, Andrew

Conversions: Cooney (3), Curtis

Yellow card: Andrew

SARACENS: Sean Maitland; Alex Lewington, Dom Morris, Nick Tompkins, Rotimi Segun; Alex Lozowski, Aled Davies; Ralph Adams-Hale, Tom Woolstencroft, Marco Riccioni; Nick Isiekwe, Tim Swinson; Jackson Wray, Ben Earl, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements from: Ethan Lewis, Richard Barrington, Harvey Beaton, Callum Hunter-Hill, Sean Reffell, Sam Bryan, Manu Vunipola, Charlie Watson, Joel Kpoku, Janco Venter, Andy Christie, Josh Hallett, Ben Harris, Elliott Obatoyinbo, Sam Crean, Sam Wainwright.

ULSTER: Michael Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Craig Gilroy; Billy Burns, John Cooney; (1-8) Andrew Warwick, Brad Roberts, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor, Mick Kearney; Greg Jones, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements from: John Andrew, Callum Reid, Tom O’Toole, Sam Carter, Matty Rea, David Shanahan, Ethan McIlroy, Ben Moxham, Ross Kane, Marcus Rea, David McCann, Harry Sheridan, Ian Madigan, Angus Curtis, Ben Carson.

Referee: Karl Dickson (England)

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