Ulster had nothing left in the tank, admits coach
Mark Anscombe admits that Saturday night's Heineken Cup exit was "devastating" for Ulster.
"Devastating in that it was a knock-out game we lost which means we're out of a competition we know we're still good enough to be in," the Ulster coach said.
It's a no-holds-barred round of questions designed to get to the bottom of what went wrong against Saracens, the Aviva Premiership leaders who strangled the life out of opponents who failed to display anything like the hunger and passion on show against Leinster a week earlier at the RDS, Anscombe listed injuries, lack of time together, refereeing decisions and the opposition's strength in depth.
In rolling with the punches, Anscombe sought to find positives, something none of the Ulster supporters who made the trip to London managed to do in the wake of a bitterly disappointing performance by their team.
"Looking back on the game we weren't that bad," he said. "We didn't do a few of the things that we needed to with the urgency required. They (Saracens) didn't play a lot of rugby and we had some poor calls go against us, which didn't help.
"We allowed it to roll on and didn't have the initiative to turn it around and take what was there to be taken."
The intensity of Ulster's play against Leinster at the RDS, where they achieved a famous victory, was missing at Twickenham.
Asked why that was, Anscombe said: "The likes of Harlequins and Saracens have got squads of 40-odd to pick from at the moment. They've got no injuries. We haven't had that luxury since before Christmas and that takes its toll. It really does.
"I know people will say, 'That's a coach making excuses' but it does take its toll. We needed to get the strongest team possible on the park. We selected the strongest team we possibly could have last Saturday, there is no question about that. But in doing that the one thing we sacrificed was a bit of game-time and continuity together. We just didn't have the luxury of that and that's what you saw – some sore bodies from the Leinster game.
"If you look at the last three or four weeks at what the likes of Saracens have been putting in and out, they don't have an injury toll."
Explaining how Ulster's build-up to the match had gone he said: "We were icing Chris Henry's knee, trying to look after it. Rory (Best) was in bed with the flu, Monday and Tuesday. John Afoa wasn't here. We were carrying knocks so Johann (Muller) had to be careful, Jared Payne had to be careful.
"We were looking after players to get them there rather than being totally focused on what we were going to do when we got there. That's not an excuse, that's just the reality of how you go about doing things at times."
Asked if Ulster had peaked in the wrong game and a week too early – against Leinster in Dublin on March 30 rather than against Saracens in London on April 6 – he replied: "Not at all. Instead I think the game came up on us about two weeks too early.
"We certainly didn't peak too early, our problem was that we didn't have enough time."
When it was suggested that Ulster had blown themselves out against Leinster and were unable to recover from those exertions, Anscombe said: "If you look at the two performances and just take the raw facts of the (Heineken Cup) game, it would show that was the case.
"Some guys just didn't bounce back in time and that happens through the fact that they hadn't had enough rugby. The Leinster game was some guys' first in eight or nine weeks so they showed the character to go out there and play like that.
"But it's another thing when you come up against another team, just as tough, the following week to start backing things up. To back things up and continue doing them you need to have a good base behind you.
"Maybe that pace was just eroded from us as a result of the number of injuries we've had throughout the year."
Asked where that leaves Ulster he answered: "We've now got two weeks before we get a break so that will show us what we've got to be getting out there and showing what we need to do. I've got confidence in this team that we can do that.
"We're going to be putting out a strong team so we've just got to go back to doing our thing."