Mid January means European Rugby and for Saracens a visit from Ulster, with 4 wins from 4 a successful afternoon for the home team would mean qualification for the knock out stages of the Champions Cup with a home quarter final as a likely reward. Although Ulster’s hopes of taking one of the highest 2nd place spots had been dented by an unexpected win by Ospreys they were still in with a shout.
The day was to say the least chilly, a day for layers galore! That was a small snag while eating lunch with my good friends Alun and Sharon, the table looked like a teenager’s bedroom, well the spare chair anyway. With a delicious lunch at the Metro restaurant consumed it was time to go and take in the action.
Saracens had gained an important win at The Kingspan Stadium, beating Ulster by 9-27, an early marker of how the season has progressed for the team from North London. Ulster had beaten both Toulouse and Oyannax with a nearly identical scoreline – Toulouse 23-25, then Oyannax 23-24 in their fixture rearranged as a result of the Paris atrocities in December.
The teams took to the pitch, with Saracens fielding 7 of the players picked in Eddie Jones’ Elite Playing squad, Ulster were led out by the man favoured in the press as the new Ireland captain Rory Best. The Ulster back line with the exception of Paddy Jackson were, and this is in layman’s terms, huge! It would be interesting to see how the Saracen’s defence coped with them!
Saracens were awarded an early penalty as Ulster were penalised for failing to roll away. That’s a ruling I’m so unsure about, it literally looks impossible for players to roll away sometimes, it seems harsh to concede points as Ulster did when that’s the case.
One of those powerful backs Stuart McCloskey made a great run passing through 4 or 5 Saracens players before Will Fraser tracked back to take him down. Ulster continued with their attack and with a penalty pending Jared Payne put in a neat kick which bounced into the hands of Luke Marshall who scored a cracking try. I was disappointed that many of the home fans around me didn’t give it the applause it deserved. Jackson added the extras.
The first scrum brought the first scrum penalty to Saracens, Owen Farrell opted to kick at goal and missed to the delight of the many Ulster fans in the ground. They came in numbers and were impressive in their support for their team.
The referee made good use of the TMO/screen as Chris Ashton intervened to remove Marshall as a factor – via his face! The move started lower, but Marshall was clearly perturbed as Ashton’s hands were fully in his face, and close to his eyes. My view is that Ashton was very lucky not to receive a card, I take issue with those in front of me who didn’t think it should be a penalty! A few eye patches in place as always, giving them just the one eye to watch the game with!
The ball was cleared from the Ulster half, but not for long and Farrell reduced the deficit to a point with a penalty kick on 20 minutes. Unusually for Farrell he missed another kick at goal 5 minutes later, from very similar position to the first miss.
Ulster were awarded a very kickable penalty as we approached the 30 minute mark, they chose to kick to touch, but failed to win the lineout ball, they did however win a second penalty. Jackson a man who is usually a safe boot sent the kick to the right of the posts. I must mention at this point my neighbour for the day Gerry, an Irishman very strongly supporting Saracens! Originally a Leinster fan it was quite odd to hear him yelling for the men in red and black throughout the game.
Ulster lost one of their starting props Wiehahn Herbst with 5 minutes of the first half remaining, worrying signs for them as he was helped from the pitch. Saracens had won another scrum penalty around the half way line, choosing to kick to touch this time. That tactic worked for them as they won a further penalty, kicking to touch, Billy Vunipola being in possession of the ball as Saracens rolled over the line, leaving most of the Ulster defence on the floor. That try made Vunipola’s personal tally 6 from 12 matches, Farrell added the extras with a difficult kick. The try saw the teams go in at half time with the score on Saracens 13 Ulster 7.
The teams emerged being clapped on my lots of tiny rugby players – they’d played their own mini games at half time – to cheers from the crowd. Jared Payne who’d shone in the first half put i a great clearing kick early on, then a second, high time, Billy Vunipola and Richard Wigglesworth both went for it! Something of a schoolboy error, the ball therefore went the way of Ulster.
Ulster had a great attacking opportunity but a speculative high ball was taken very well by Ben Ransom; there’d been a penalty coming, Jackson promptly slotted the ball over to close the gap to 3.
Luke Marshall put a huge hit in on Chris Ashton, driving him back and dislodging the ball as Saracens attacked, it gave Ulster momentary respite, before Saracens came back at them. Saracens were awarded a penalty, with an offside at the kick off missed by Mr Garces as pointed out by the TV – Farrell however, hit the posts, but the ball tipped over to add 3 points to the Saracens tally.
We had the sight of Jamie George making a break, he’s such an unlikely looking speedster, but at times he really is one! Saracens went through the phases; it was very worrying to see Will Fraser down and looking in agony as play progressed.
Owen Farrell made a fantastic break after a ‘show and go’ he split 2 defenders, timing the pass perfectly to Duncan Taylor who finished off a great try! It’s interesting watching the replay to see that Fraser had just got up, with the medical man standing near by, might they have put the defenders off? Farrell missed another kick – a surprise!
Schalk Brits came on for speedy George and one of his 1st actions was to throw into a lineout that Saracens lost, not the best of starts! Ulster weren’t able to make anything of the possession however and the same mistake wasn’t made in the following lineout. Saracens surged down the field with the ball held in the back of the maul.
A try felt inevitable as the ball came out and into the hands of Chris Wyles, he fell short, giving the forwards a chance to get into the action. It was newly picked Maro Itoje who scored the try. I know I keep saying it, but see your eyes on this young man – he’s exceptional! Another conversion – missed!
Things got worse for Ulster as Craig Gilroy saw yellow as he failed to attempt to roll away – harsh to penalise, a team yellow I suspect – but I do think it’s a harsh one when the opposition players are piling in on you.
Saracens made hay while the card was shining – with the original flying Hooker running through to score a try from a lineout, he ran from the Ulster 22 rolling with an Ulster defender attached to score the bonus point try! His smile could be seen all around the ground as always. Farrell added the extras this time. Taking the score to Saracens 33 Ulster 10.
Saracens failed to add any more points in spite of their best efforts and having a man advantage for a further 6 minutes. It was in fact Ulster who scored as Ian Humphries intercepted a pass to run the length of the pitch to score, the referee did consult with the TMO but Humphries was awarded for his efforts with a 7 pointer.
Ulster couldn’t add to their score and were disappointed to be having without a point, the result at Saracens 33 Ulster 17 will make it difficult to qualify. Saracens qualify with a home quarter final to come, having dropped a single point in the 5 games played to date.
With Chris Ashton due in front of the disciplinary committee this week for the incident with Luke Marshall I’ve gone back to the 16th minute of the game to look more closely. Luke Marshall was very adamant at the time that Ashton’s hands were near his eyes – his hands were certainly on his face, he should have had a card. If the citing of contact with the eyes is proven he could be facing serious consequences!