Ulster 9-27 Saracens: Five things we learned from the crushing Kingspan defeat
Careless Ulster were stopped in their tracks
Ulster coach Les Kiss admitted his team produced a 'poor' display as they opened up their European Champions Cup campaign with a crushing 27-9 home defeat to Saracens.
The English Premiership outfit, coached by former Ulster boss Mark McCall, outclassed the Kingspan men, running in four tries to grab a vital bonus point.
Our rugby correspondent Jonathan Bradley outlines his five takeaways from the game:
There was one happy Ulsterman in Kingspan Stadium last night, opposing director of rugby Mark McCall. The last time a visiting team came to Belfast in European competition and left with five points was Gloucester in 2007 – a game that ironically was McCall’s last in charge of his native province – and the Bangor man will, quite rightly, have found last night’s victory that little bit sweeter. Ulster’s former skipper deserves massive credit for turning Saracens into title challengers but, for the second time in as many weeks, an English side came across the Irish Sea and highlighted the ever-increasing gap between the Premiership and Pro12. What happens in the remainder of round two, when Leinster travel to Bath and Glasgow host Northampton, is surely worth keeping an eye on.
Visitors don’t see red
With Jared Payne’s red card two years in the past but still fresh in the memory of the local crowd, a controversial incident seemed somewhat inevitable but that it came in the same minute as the Kiwi’s dismissal, and the product of an aerial challenge, still brought a wry chuckle. Ulster weren’t laughing, however, when Michael Rhodes saw only yellow for the dangerous tackle on Andrew Trimble. Despite Ulster's struggles against 14 men during the contest, such an early sending off would have given the game a wholly different complexion. Afterwards Les Kiss said only that the challenge was "at least" a yellow, adding ruefully that “it doesn’t matter now.”
Failure to capitalise
If Rhodes was edging towards fortunate to still be on the pitch as early as the fourth minute, Billy Vunipola was hugely unlucky to also see yellow in the second-half. The second sin-binning proved a turning point but not in the way one would expect. Ulster led by four points at the time, still holding their 9-5 half-time advantage, but that was short-lived after Alex Goode, thanks to brilliant Duncan Taylor offload, crossed the whitewash with the Scot going over himself soon after. Having managed just a penalty with Rhodes off the field, Ulster mustered not a solitary point with the England number 8 watching on and indeed were outscored by nine points over the 20 minutes when they had a man advantage.
The conditions were poor from the outset – the kind of day when winning the toss, which Ulster did not, can be factor – and Ulster’s set-piece struggled to cope. The line-out was scrappy throughout. One crooked throw out of touch, moments after Saracens had been reduced to 14 and Ruan Pienaar missed a long-range penalty, really relieved the pressure when Ulster needed to score while the subsequent scrum, with Brad Barritt masquerading in the back-row, even brought a penalty. Mako Vunipola was pinged, perhaps harshly, early on but his contribution thereafter was unmatched.
Battle of the breakdown
The return of Iain Henderson allowed Ulster to deploy a back-row of the 23-year-old tyro alongside Chris Henry and Nick Williams for a first time since 2013 – incidentally during the quarter-final against Saracens at Twickenham – and early on the benefits were clear. The hosts had a real edge on the deck, with Henry and Louis Ludik forcing great turnovers, and Williams Ulster’s best player on the night, but were unable to turn that superiority into points.
Ulster’s work at the collisions was stellar, an area where defence coach Joe Barakat specialises, and their ability to get over the ball had Saracens hugely frustrated during the first hour. When Saracens kept the ball alive, however, Ulster had issues. Peppering the corners with grubbers was one effective tactic while the home side’s over eagerness in shooting out of the line created holes that, in a typically clinical fashion, Saracens exposed ruthlessly. Les Kiss’s men, in contrast, never seemed close to manufacturing a breakthrough against a rigidly organised outfit.