Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Ulster can stand tall after never-say-die display in agonising defeat to Saracens

Ulster 15 Saracens 17

Off night: ref Garces red cards Jared Payne (15) to the dismay of captain  Johann Muller (centre)
Off night: ref Garces red cards Jared Payne (15) to the dismay of captain Johann Muller (centre)
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar during the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens at Ravenhill
Ulster Rugby fans at Ravenhill for the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens, Saturday 5 April 2014.
Barry McGuigan enjoys the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Saracens' Chris Ashton scores a try against Ulster during Saturday's Heineken Cup quarter-final match at Ravenhill
Heineken Cup quarter-final Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Ulster Rugby fans at Ravenhill for the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens, Saturday 5 April 2014.
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Ulster's Johann Muller during the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens at Ravenhill
John Afoa charges down Owen Farrell during theHeineken Cup quarter final game between Ulster and Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast. Photo: Pacemaker
Ulster Rugby fans at Ravenhill for the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens, Saturday 5 April 2014.
Jared Payne clashes with Alex Goode during the Heineken Cup quarter final game between Ulster and Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast. Photo: Pacemaker
Jared Payne clashes with Alex Goode and sees red for this challenge during the Heineken Cup quarter final game between Ulster and Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast. Photo: Pacemaker
Ulster Rugby fans at Ravenhill for the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens, Saturday 5 April 2014.
John Afoa charges down Owen Farrell during the Heineken Cup quarter final game between Ulster and Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast. Photo: Pacemaker
Ulster's Nick Williams sets up an attack against Saracens during Saturday's Heineken Cup Quarter Final match at Ravenhill
Ulster Rugby fans at Ravenhill for the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens, Saturday 5 April 2014.
Tommy Bowe charges at the Saracens defence during the Heineken Cup quarter final game between Ulster and Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast. Photo: Pacemaker
Jared Payne clashes with Alex Goode during the Heineken Cup quarter final game between Ulster and Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast. Photo: Pacemaker
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Ulster Rugby fans at Ravenhill for the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens, Saturday 5 April 2014.
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Ulster Rugby fans at Ravenhill for the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Ulster and Saracens, Saturday 5 April 2014.
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast

In law there is a clearly defined difference between intentional and unintentional acts, even though the outcome is the same in each case.

Take murder and manslaughter. The former is defined as 'unlawful, pre-meditated killing of one human being by another'. The latter translates as 'unlawful killing of one human being of another without malice aforethought'. There is a world of difference.

Not for one moment am I suggesting that, in terms of its seriousness, a tackle in a rugby match can be likened to taking a human life, whether deliberately or accidentally. I am, however, making the case that intentional and unintentional acts are not the same.

The fourth minute dismissal of Ulster full-back Jared Payne for a tackle which resulted in Saracens' Alex Goode being stretchered from the pitch was unintentional.

It was also game-changing, for between them, French referee Jerome Garces and his fellow-countryman Eric Gauzins, the TMO, succeeded in handicapping the home side in a manner that ultimately cost them a Heineken Cup semi-final place.

Had qualification been the reward for courage, character, spirit and fortitude, Ulster's players would now be planning for an Aviva Stadium showdown with ASM Clermont Auvergne on April 26. Instead they must drag themselves up off the floor for Friday night's PRO12 date with Connacht.

Once again the magnificent new stadium will be full, though the atmosphere is unlikely to be anything like it was on Saturday night when the capacity crowd stood up for the Ulstermen, who – both individually and collectively – emerged with their reputations enhanced by a truly memorable display of raw guts, steely determination and never-say-die resolution in the face of adversity.

To a man, Ulster gave their all. Alas, it was not quite enough to claw back what Jerome Garces and Eric Gauzins had taken from them.

In professional rugby the concession of points during a 10-minute sin-binning averages out at 12. Somehow, Ulster restricted the most prolific try-scorers in England's Aviva Premiership to 17 in the 76 minutes they were forced to make do without their full-back.

At full-time the crowd rose in salutation of what they knew had been a gargantuan, nothing-left-to-give effort, this in marked contrast to the reception for Monsieur Garces as he made his way from the pitch with booing ringing in his ears.

Seldom will you hear Ravenhill spectators berate match officials; it's just not part of the ethos of rugby.

But such was their anger and wholly justified sense of injustice on realising the attainment of an objective they had genuinely believed to be possible had been snatched away by a bad call that it needed an outlet.

Had Ulster's handicapping been restricted to the blow delivered by the referee and TMO, even then it would have been a monumental task. But worse was to follow.

Inspirational hooker Rory Best suffered a match-ending injury to his right ankle and exited eight minutes after Payne's dismissal. And even by that stage it was obvious that scrum-half Ruan Pienaar was struggling with the shoulder injury that had ruled him out of the previous two matches.

By the end of the first quarter, Nick Williams was in evident discomfort, too.

So Payne sent off, Best forced off, Pienaar and Williams both struggling.

In the circumstances, it was an achievement in itself that Ulster turned round with a 9-5 interval lead, Pienaar having managed penalties in the 16th, 30th and 40th minutes.

Between the first and second of those, however, Saracens made their extra man count, scoring off a wheeled scrum that disorientated Ulster sufficiently to create space for Chris Ashton to dive over for a 24th minute try. It speaks volumes for Ulster's tactical nous and remarkable determination that they restricted their opponents to just one such moment in the first-half.

Mouritz Botha finally succeeded in breaching Ulster's Herculean defence nine minutes after the resumption, making it 10-9 to Saracens. At that Pienaar (pictured) made way for Paul Marshall, promptly followed by Williams' withdrawal and Stephen Ferris's introduction. Iain Henderson for Dan Tuohy was another swap.

These were to have been big-impact substitutions, but Ulster's reduction to 14 men had changed things in a way they couldn't have foreseen. But did they give up? No way.

For the 18 minutes that followed Botha's try they remained within a point of parity as a result of superb organisation and their staggering refusal to capitulate.

No-one epitomised that spirit better than Andrew Trimble. Barely able to stand after taking a blow to the head in a try-saving tackle moments earlier, he shoved aside the medic who was holding him up in order to dive back in and help Darren Cave prevent Saracens grounding the ball for a third try. Unbelievable courage and commitment.

Ultimately that period of pressure ended with Ashton scoring his second try, that from a left-right Farrell cross-kick. And having missed four previous off-the-tee attempts, this time Farrell added the extras, which proved crucial.

At 17-9, it looked all over. But Ulster dug again into reserves they probably never knew were there, with two Jackson penalties in the 70th and 73rd minutes making it 17-15 and giving rise to a remarkable finale, into which the heroic 14 threw everything.

It wasn't to be and as they dragged themselves round the stadium to applaud their fans, some of Ulster's biggest, hardest players had tears streaming down their faces.

Beaten, yes – but glorious in defeat.

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