Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Saracens can be brought down to earth by Ulster rugby

Owen Farrell tackles team mate Chris Ashton during a Saracens training session
Gareth Steenson believes Ulster can beat Saracens

Gareth Steenson knows all about facing Mark McCall's Saracens and the threat they pose.

Now coming to the end of his sixth season with Exeter Chiefs, the Dungannon-born but Royal School Armagh-educated out-half has enough experience of the side coached by fellow-exile Mark McCall to have a fair idea of what Ulster can expect in Saturday night's Heineken Cup quarter-final at Ravenhill (6.30pm).

Exeter and Saracens clashed in the Aviva Premiership as recently as February 23, with McCall's men winning their Allianz Park meeting 23-10, tries by James Johnston and Schalk Brits -- both converted by Charlie Hodgson, who also kicked three penalties -- having eclipsed former Ulster centre Ian Whitten's early touchdown, to which Steenson added the extras as well as nailing a second-half goal.

Both Whitten and Steenson did full 80-minute shifts, with the latter's line breaks causing the home defence problems in a first-half which ended 7-7.

Steenson, whose CV includes Ireland under-21s, 19s and Schools honours and time with Rotherham and Cornish Pirates en route to Exeter, pulled no punches in his assessment of Saracens, the Aviva Premiership leaders.

They are a big, physically aggressive outfit who have added guile and style to the Route One rugby on which they relied so heavily in times past.

The brand of football they play now is more attractive. It's effective, too; they are the Premiership's leading try-scorers and have banked more bonuses than any of their rivals.

Despite that, Steenson believes they can be beaten. Why? How? The fact that this is at Ravenhill and with hooker Rory Best definitely starting and scrum-half Ruan Pienaar almost certainly doing so, Ulster will be back to full strength.

Steenson has no doubts that last weekend's display against Edinburgh at Murrayfield, where Ulster went down 28-23, was a one-off slip. This weekend he is expecting an altogether better performance.

"Ulster's front five, when they're on song, are tough nuts to crack," he said. "And with this being the first night of all four sides of Ravenhill open, the place will be buzzing.

"The atmosphere will be great and obviously Ulster will be trying to make the most of that by getting the crowd going as well. I know when we're playing Saracens at Sandy Park we always try to get the crowd going."

"Pienaar is huge for Ulster. He's some player. And Rory, well -- he's just Mr Ulster, isn't he? He'll give them a lot of go-forward. And losing to Saracens at the same stage last year is going to be fresh in the memory, too.

"But this is a different ball game; I think with home advantage Ulster have a real chance if they get the crowd behind them.

"They have the fire-power to do it, they definitely have -- especially with (Andrew) Trimble and Tommy (Bowe) on the wings. And big Stevie (Ferris) coming back is a big thing, too.

"I think they'll start with him, because if they put him on the bench and something happens to somebody after five minutes, he's going to have to play 75 and he's probably not up to that yet."

Steenson's one-word assessment is 'physical'. To beat them, you must first match that.

"They still don't tend to play a lot of rugby," he said. "They just try and squeeze you and put you under pressure. They wait for you to make mistakes," said the 29-year-old, who celebrates his 30th birthday this Saturday.

"If you play too much rugby against them, you're probably playing into their hands. They're a set-piece side, but above all they pride themselves on their defence and that definitely is difficult to break down.

"They pride themselves on their discipline and work-rate, too -- they have it on display all over Allianz Park. But if you get that right against them, you give yourself a chance.

"Having said all of that, they do have some good boys in their back line -- guys who can strike from anywhere. They've started to score a lot more tries than they used to, especially in the Premiership.

"In the past I think they were more about just getting penalties, which is understandable enough when you've got Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson who are just two top-class kickers.

"It depends what way they want to play, which of those two they select. Charlie is one of the best passers in the Premiership, definitely -- and probably in European rugby, too -- so he can get the back line going.

"Alternatively, Owen can kick for position as well as kicking goals, so they've got the game to play whatever style they want and that's what makes them very dangerous.

"And it's not necessarily a case of one or other of them; they can play the two of them -- they've done that before now. So it will be interesting to see who they choose and what way they decide to go.

"With Mark McCall being there he'll know that Ulster will pride themselves on the physicality of their pack, too. In fact, when you think about, there are a lot of similarities between the two sides.

"So I think it will be some match and if Ulster -- with the crowd behind them -- play as they can, they're good enough to win it."

* EMERGING Ireland face a tough three-matches-in-nine-days schedule in June's Romania-hosted IRB Nations Cup.

Ulster backs' guru Neil Doak will assist Connacht's Dan McFarland, the new head coach who previously mentored the Irish under-20s. Malone and Ulster stalwart Joey Miles is the squad manager.

Emerging Ireland will open their account against Russia on Friday, June 13.

On Wednesday, June 18 they face Uruguay and three days later (Saturday, June 22) they play the host Nation, the highest-ranked team at 17 in the IRB World Rankings.

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