Ulster must heed cup wake-up call in wake of Cardiff shock
Defeat by Cardiff is a warning shot ahead of Saracens clash
Ulster had hoped to march into Saturday night's Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Saracens on the back of nine straight wins. Instead they will limp in having just suffered their first defeat of 2014.
A la flower of Scotland and proud Edward's army, Cardiff Blues sent their humbled and chastened adversaries homeward to think again, Ulster's Arms Park visit having posed more questions than it provided answers.
It promises to be a hard week for them; coach Mark Anscombe sets high standards and he certainly was not happy with his side's sub-standard Saturday night showing.
Without singling out individuals in the aftermath of this unexpected defeat at the hands of opponents who had lost each of their previous five matches and were minus injured Lions stars Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton, Anscombe made it plain that he felt let down by some of his players.
"Some of us are going to have to look at the decisions we make, how we get ready and how we approach the game," he said.
"We had opportunities but our last-minute decision-making was poor. We left a couple of tries out there."
Responding to a suggestion that it is better to have had that poor performance on March 29 rather than April 5, the straight-talking Kiwi's response was: "The easy cliché is that you'd rather get it out of the way this week rather than next week.
"But why should that happen? Good teams don't let that happen and we did today."
There was discernible surprise in Anscombe's voice as he sought to make sense of what he had just witnessed.
"We had a great week in training. Our training was superb," he said. Then managing to inject a brief note of levity he added: "So maybe we want to have a bad week of training next week."
Comparing Ulster's form with that of the side they will face in this weekend's European set-to, Anscombe warned: "Saracens are leading the English competition (Aviva Premiership). They are formidable. They didn't have complacency last week or this week – they had two good wins."
They certainly did: having trounced Harlequins 39-17 at Wembley a week earlier, they followed that up by beating Wasps 32-20 on Saturday at Adams Park.
Ulster were architects of their own downfall in Cardiff. Their first-half showing was arguably their poorest of the season, a 50-50 cocktail of indiscipline and errors which saw them turn round an embarrassing 22-5 in arrears.
They had made the perfect start with a Stephen Ferris hit on Gethin Jenkins forcing the Welsh loose-head to cough up possession at the outset of a passage that culminated in Darren Cave scoring an easy try after just three minutes.
And when full-back Jared Payne's delightful soft-hands pass to Tommy Bowe saw the wing cleverly chip the ball into space, Ulster were only denied a second try by the intervention Lewis Jones who was happy to save the day in exchange for the concession of a five-metres scrum.
Ulster were unable to score from that, with No 8 Nick Williams thrice thwarted. And when Cardiff's excellent defence earned them a scrum put-in five metres from their own line, Ulster conceded a free.
From then on to half-time their game disintegrated. Unable to secure possession and guilty of far too many infringements, rudderless Ulster lost their way quite horribly. They were out-muscled and in truth out-played, with most of the damage having been done while Dan Tuohy was in the sin-bin, Italian referee Marius Mitrea having grown tired of Ulster's repeated infringements of which 'not releasing' and 'not rolling away' were the most frequently punished.
Cardiff's excellent Munster-bound No 8 Robin Copeland scored in the 36th minute while his opposite number watched on from the sideline, with Gareth Davies' conversion and five first-half penalties leaving Ulster 17 points adrift at the break.
True, Ulster improved after that; they actually won the second half by an 18-6 margin, with Paddy Jackson outscoring his Cardiff counterpart by six post-interval penalties to two, this after failing to convert Cave's early try.
But that cannot paper over the cracks. With the exceptions of Jackson, Luke Marshall and the excellent Andrew Trimble, Ulster were poor. Any re-run of this will see Saracens steamroller them and put paid to their Heineken Cup dreams.
Saracens, England and Lions goal-kicking machine Owen Farrell will surely have been licking his lips as he watched Ulster hand Davies point-scoring opportunities.Anscombe reflected: "In the last quarter of an hour of the first half Cardiff scored 19 points. That was down to our decision-making and indiscipline. Our penalty count in the first half was 9-1."