Ulster supporters deserved better than tame Heineken Cup exit
it is hard to describe the level of disappointment at Ulster's loss at the weekend to Saracens.
It's not the fact of going out. That is always a possibility. But if you do, you want to go out in style, and there was little of that from Ulster on Saturday.
It is particularly tough to take if you watched Munster destroy Harlequins on Sunday. A team that Ulster beat in the most courageous of circumstances in the quarter-finals last year at Thomond Park showed just what it takes.
They took the pitch and never looked like losing. It was in their eyes, body language and in their rugby. For Ulster fans, that is where the disappointment from Twickenham lies.
These last two seasons in European competition share the similarity of containing a roller coaster of emotions – for example, the aforementioned quarter-final win a year ago in Thomond Park and the back to back matches this season against Northampton Saints. Both Heineken Cup runs ended in Twickenham, where Ulster, on both occasions, lost to the better side.
But the Twickenham stories are slightly different. It was a huge achievement to make it to the final last year, where the team slightly came up short in terms of experience against one of the greatest Heineken sides in history. In a way, last Saturday's match offered up an opportunity for some sort of rugby catharsis – the team could be cleansed by proving that it had learnt the lessons, moved on and was in better shape this time.
Sadly, the greater disappointment this time around was that Ulster's rugby was simply not good enough.
In fact, it was so far below par that Ulster did not resemble the side of the early part of the season or, indeed, the one that beat Leinster a week earlier.
Above all, it has left us scratching our heads wondering how there can be such a reversal in fortunes in such a short space of time.
Clearly the opposition had a lot to do with it and Saracens deserve enormous credit for their clinical approach.
Their 'wolf pack' mentality really came through – disciplined, organised and ruthlessly efficient. They pride themselves on their mental strength, physical resolve and work ethic.
Mark McCall's preparation worked a treat and their defensive line stopped Ulster in its tracks. They simply strangled Ulster and did not allow the team to play its natural game.
However, the number of unforced errors and aspects of the game in which Ulster underperformed meant that, to a large extent, Ulster contributed their own downfall.
While the scrum showed its usual force and dominance, the lineout was a shambles.
What is becoming known as the third setpiece i.e. the restarts, was also inconsistent.
What was most concerning was Ulster's inability to react to what was happening on the pitch.
Why not simply cut the lineout and improve the quality of your own ball? There were two early restarts in which Paddy Jackson got caught with the ball and then Jared Payne's attempt to run the ball from his own '22' came unstuck.
I wondered why on earth a big unit like Nick Williams was not dropped deep into the 22 on restarts to catch and run the ball back, set up the ruck and allow Ulster to clear their lines?
Finally, Ulster did not change tactics when it was clear that they were struggling to get outside Saracens' blitz defence.
Ulster needed to commit more Sarries to the ruck, but the pick and go appeared too late.
Where was the kicking strategy and attempts to keep the Saracens defensive line honest? For example, chip kicks over the rush defence or punts to make Ashton and Strettle turn – anything but run into the brick wall time after time.
Yes, Sarries were impressively clinical, but hard to enjoy watching.
They play little positive rugby – a strong kick chase and awesome defence is destructively effective but I do hope that its limitations get exposed by a side that can find attacking gaps.
I still believe that Ulster had the potential of winning. Yet, in hindsight, it is clear that Ulster are currently not quite as good as the win over Leinster suggested.
Equally, I have no doubt that they are a much better side than showed up on Saturday. There is still much to play for and much to prove.
Twickenham was a bit of a shocker but the team has the ability and character to bounce back.
For the sake of Ulster fans who travelled to London in their thousands, it needs to.