Ulster's Heineken dream crushed as Saracens cling on for narrow win at Ravenhill
Ulster 15 Saracens 17
As the afternoon of quarter-finals un-furled, the talk at one end of Ireland was that if Ulster could play with the intensity of Munster at the other, all would be well. But intensity, it seems, can only be cranked up so far.
It had started at a pitch at Thomond Park, went near the red zone in Clermont and burst a valve here. What promised to be a classic turned into a bit of a seething mess. Exciting, but a mess.
The game started with a clatter of kicks and charges, with Billy Vunipola and Nick Williams to the fore, but the game was only four minutes old when it came to an abrupt halt. Paddy Jackson sent up a high kick, caught at full tilt – and with his feet high off the ground – by Alex Goode. He was still airborne when Jared Payne arrived at similar velocity. The Saracens full-back went down and stayed down until he was taken off on a stretcher; the Ulster full-back walked off having been shown a red card by the French referee, Jerome Garces.
In Payne's defence, it seemed he realised the error in the timing of his approach and did his best to pull his arms out of the way. For the prosecution, guilt hinged on the speed of the collision, the height of Goode off the ground and the fact that he would play no further part in the game. The severity of the landing turned yellow to red.
There had been drama even before that when the reverential silence afforded to Owen Farrell as he prepared a penalty attempt turned to the jeer that tends to follow England's hot-shot when he misses away from home.
It was all part of the theatre. Not so loud – nowhere near – was the muted applause for Rory Best when he hobbled off. The game was still only 12 minutes old.
Ruan Pienaar clutched a shoulder and Duncan Taylor went down holding his leg, to be replaced by Charlie Hodgson. This was to be no cameo at the end for the veteran outside half; he would have to spend over an hour in the office. At first he had to watch as Pienaar landed a penalty, but soon he had the ball in his hands following a march forward by the Saracens against a seven-man Ulster scrum, Chris Henry having gone from wing forward to outhalf.
Hodgson's time on the ball was but a fleeting moment, for, with a sweet inside pass, he released Chris Ashton into the space that would have been guarded by Henry in conventional circumstances. Ashton burst through, rounded Luke Marshall and finished with his trademark dive, an extravagance that went down like cold sick at Ravenhill. Farrell missed the conversion, and an element of good cheer returned.
It certainly did when Pienaar added two penalties to give the home team the lead at the interval. They were calm strikes by the scrum half, in contrast to the frenzied defence of his outnumbered team. They survived the half without leaking another try, and had their moments in attack, through Bowe in particular, but in truth Saracens should have scored when they had clear overlaps. The fury of the half seemed to have put blinkers on most of the players.
The second half began with no reduction in the heat, only in Ulster's willingness to put the ball through the hands. High it went from Jackson's boot, or diagonally long towards Andrew Trimble's wing. It was fine as long as when they wanted to find touch, they made sure of crossing the line.
From a penalty to the corner they missed and Saracens worked their way down field.
Again it seemed they could not count. They cut back inside when the overlap cried out to be used, but eventually they worked it wide and Mouritz Botha finished with a stroll. Farrell missed the conversion to be on three misses from three attempts.
Pienaar made his exit and the kicking duties transferred to Jackson, who rapped the post with his first penalty attempt. Saracens remained in the lead by two unconverted tries to three penalties by the absent Pienaar. More points looked inevitable, but Farrell missed a fourth kick. A third try looked as if it simply had to come, especially after a searing break by the seriously quick Schalk Brits, but somehow Ulster managed to hold the ball up over their line. The ball was stuck there, suspended while all around players lay on the ground. This was never anything less than brutal.
From the good position, however, Saracens worked out their advantages and Farrell landed a punt with precision into the arms of Ashton, who touched down without fuss. Naturally – with no incitement to miss – Farrell landed the conversion from the touchline.
That should have been that, but Jackson struck a long penalty to put Ulster within a converted try of victory. Then, with nine minutes to go he had another chance. He took it: Ulster trailed by two points with seven minutes to play. It may have been messy, but it was a nail-biter to the very end.
Down went Ulster into the Saracens half, only for Botha to steal a lineout on Rob Herring's throw. Ulster pounded away, but Saracens kept them on the 10-metre line, just out of drop-goal range. Beautifully messy.
Scorers – Ulster: R Pienaar 3 pens, P Jackson 2 pens. Saracens: C Ashton 2 tries, M Botha try
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble (C Gilroy 64), D Cave, L Marshall, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 49); T Court, R Best (R Herring 12), J Afoa; J Muller (R Diack 68), D Tuohy (I Henderson 59); R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams (S Ferris 54).
Saracens: A Goode (C Wyles 4); C Ashton, D Taylor (C Hodgson 10), B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 68); M Vunipola (R Barrington 73), S Brits, J Johnston (M Stevens 48); S Borthwick, M Botha; B Vunipola, J Burger, E Joubert (K Brown 64).
Referee: J Garces (France)