Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Ulster left battered and bruised

Iain Henderson goes over for Ulster's late score in their Heineken Cup defeat

Even though there has been time to take stock, it still hasn't made things look much better. Yes it was cruel, but there can be precious little carping over what transpired.

Another European dream bites the dust but it is hard to shake off the lingering feeling that this was a hollow and desperately submissive exit and a step backwards not only from last year's Twickenham thumping by Leinster, but also from the flawed but at least brave effort the year before against Northampton Saints in the quarter-final.

This time around, Ulster were beaten up, pure and simple, and that, in essence, is why this year's exit hurts so much more, never mind that the defeat was engineered by one of our own.

Of course, Ulster did manage to finish the game well with Iain Henderson – whose 55th minute surge brought them their first points of the second half through Pienaar's third penalty – getting his deserved try and substitutes Tommy Bowe and Stuart Olding showing some nifty footwork but, frankly, this counted for little as Ulster were chasing an already lost cause.

And even with John Afoa defying his massive accumulation of air miles to pretty much obliterate Mako Vunipola in the scrums, it actually brought little benefit, especially when Ulster's lineout was in ruins.

A glance at the official stats show that Ulster had more territory, possession, ball carries, metres made, line breaks, offloads and so on but letting Ulster have the ball for much of the last 20 minutes was fine by Saracens, after all, they had already won the game.

The breakdown and lineout had been key and Sarries' aggression in both areas had left Ulster gasping for air. Mark Anscombe's men looked uneasy by half-time – when trailing 16-6 – and when they needed to score next after the resumption all they got was another Saracens maul leading to the inevitable Owen Farrell penalty.

From that point Ulster hopes were extinguished and though Jared Payne was right to be furious that Ernst Joubert's hand had put the ball into touch, leading to Saracens catapulting their lineout maul over Ulster's line for Will Fraser's first half try, the inescapable fact remains that Ulster never seemed to have much composure or cohesion about them.

Kelly Brown, Schalk Brits, Brad Barritt and Fraser were all over them, hitting them in the tackle and forcing them to commit far too many men at the breakdown.

We even had the scarcely believable sights of Richard Wigglesworth, and even Farrell, bringing Nick Williams – who didn't seem to seek much direct contact until late in the game – tumbling over.

The net result saw Ulster's error count spiral. Yes, Saracens' pressure game was stifling but these mistakes suggested that this was an Ulster side ill-prepared for what it was encountering.

With so many key players having little game time under their belts, it looked like Ulster just didn't have the lung power to scale the face of this challenge.

And it wasn't that Saracens were hitting them with some unusual plays, far from it as the Premiership leaders just applied their usual high pressure, direct and low-risk style leading to the inevitable Farrell penalties.

After only five minutes things already looked shaky. Farrell was gifted the easiest of opening penalties shortly after Ulster were turned over at the breakdown and soon afterwards the first lineout went awry.

Things didn't improve as Tuohy was turned over by Vunipola and then, in quick succession, Williams threw an offload that was never on leading to another turnover while Paddy Jackson – how he must hate the sight of Twickenham – tried a short '22' drop out that failed to even cross the line and cannoned off Henry.

Was there a case for bringing on Paul Marshall and moving Pienaar to 10?

Ulster looked nothing like the side which had triumphed so admirably in Dublin the week before and maybe that effort was partly to blame for this slump.

When an unprotected Jackson was emptied by Barritt from the restart following Ruan Pienaar's first penalty success to tie the scores – yes, even Pienaar was out of sorts – Farrell then immediately stepped up and made it 6-3.

Certainly the communication lines were well and truly down when Fraser got his try with Ulster's pack fanning out and refusing to engage Saracens' rolling maul rendering it null and void only for Afoa to solely get stuck in and, in doing so, he made the maul active and off Sarries trundled to seven highly prized points.

Chris Ashton's swallow-diving try just after the hour just put greater distance between the sides with Barritt picking the winger out for an initial mismatch with Muller.

At essence, it's a simple enough game. Fail to do the basics and punishment will follow. The hope now is that the PRO12 doesn't go the same way.

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