Ulster Rugby: Saracens defeat still hurts
It will be of no consolation to Ulster that the ease with which Saracens saw off ASM Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham in Saturday's Heineken Cup semi-final underlined just how very good their own performance against the Aviva Premiership leaders had been in the previous round.
No need yet again to trawl through the entrails of Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill on April 5; suffice to say that home full-back Jared Payne's harsh dismissal by French referee Jerome Garces after just four minutes left the hosts facing an insurmountable mountain.
Ulster's heroism in restricting the Mark McCall-coached London outfit to a 17-15 victory was brought into sharp focus at the weekend when they blew 15-man Clermont, out of the water in the course of a 46-6 rout.
As at Ravenhill three weeks earlier, Saracens were beneficiaries of a controversial decision which went their way early on, referee Nigel Owens having adjudged the French club's fly-half Brock James guilty of deliberately palming the ball over his own dead ball line in the 13th minute.
Already 7-0 in arrears following Alex Goode's conversion of an eighth minute try by Chris Ashton, the award of a penalty try PLUS a yellow card for James really knocked the stuffing out of Clermont.
Vern Cotter, the losers' head coach who takes over the Scotland reins from Scott Johnson next season, said: "It was difficult. Clearly the penalty try hurt us. I thought it was maybe a yellow card against Brock James, but a penalty try was harsh."
His words bore a remarkable similarity to those of Ulster captain Johann Muller following his side's exit against the Sarries.
Speaking in the aftermath of Payne's dismissal and Ulster's defeat, Muller said: "What I saw on the big screen is that Jared never took his eye off the ball. Yes, the safety of the player is the most important thing, but my feeling is that Jared never took his eyes off that ball. So, yes – I thought the red card was really, really harsh."
Now that's a couple of significant decisions in Saracens' favour in the past two knock-out rounds, leading one to suspect that with such vital rubs of the green, their name may just be on the trophy.
McCall's post-match admission – "We all realise that today was one of those days when everything that could have gone right, went right" – confirmed that he knew his side had enjoyed all the breaks. Again.
Saracens' opponents in the May 24 final at the Millennium Stadium are the holders, Toulon. Their captain, Jonny Wilkinson, said: "We've heard nothing but good stuff about Saracens.
"To beat Clermont Auvergne with a scoreline like that is incredible. We have enormous respect for them."
Toulon's semi-final opponents, Munster, earned plaudits for their fighting, against-the-odds display before going down 24-16 at Stade Velodrome in Marseilles.
There, too, the referee played a big part. England's Wayne Barnes controversially yellow-carded Toulon back row forward Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe in the 28th minute and Munster wing Keith Earls in the 64th, by which stage the Irish province had clawed to within two points of parity at 18-16.
In addition to earning him 10 minutes in the bin, Earls' offence enabled Wilkinson to land his fourth penalty of the day to stretch his side's lead to 21-16.
In the circumstances, why 14-man Munster – with 10 minutes remaining – spurned TWO opportunities to kick for goal remains a mystery. At 21-19 and Earls back in the fray, parity – and the match itself – would have been there for the taking.
It wasn't to be. A 79th minute Wilkinson penalty took his total for the 2013-14 Heineken Cup to exactly 100 points, just eight shy of last season's tally.
So, Toulon's Wilkinson to better the 108 he scored in the 2013 Heineken Cup campaign or Saracens' Ashton to add to his 11-tries-in-one-tournament record?