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Kingspan men blow half-time lead as McCall's Sarries prove their top quality

Ulster 9-27 Saracens

By Jonathan Bradley

Saracens stormed the Kingspan Stadium last night to claim a bonus-point 27-9 win to ensure Ulster's Champions Cup campaign began on the sourest of notes.

It was the worst possible start for Les Kiss in his first European game in charge as the hosts failed to score in the final 55 minutes and managed just a solitary penalty in the 20 minutes when yellow cards had left former Ulster boss Mark McCall's men a man light.

In what was a repeat of the quarter-finals of 2013 and '14, there was no doubting the difference in quality between the two sides this time around even if there was yet another controversial incident for referee Romain Poite to deal with early on.

With just three minutes gone, there were echoes of Jared Payne and Alex Goode from two seasons ago when Andrew Trimble was tackled in the air by Michael Rhodes.

The Saracens flanker got his timing all wrong and breathed a sigh of relief when Poite opted for just a yellow.

Ruan Pienaar's long range penalty attempt fell short and Rory Best's crooked throw from the lineout brought about by a poor Saracens clearance to touch relieved the pressure.

A solid scrum, even with a forward short, and a penalty on Dan Tuohy advanced the ball into Ulster territory but Owen Farrell didn't give his penalty attempt the requisite length.

With Rhodes' return imminent, the hosts ensured they would at least take something away from Saracens' spell with 14 men as strong running from Stuart McCloskey set up a break for Darren Cave, who was tackled high by opposing captain Brad Barritt. Paddy Jackson had no trouble with the penalty.

The out-half doubled the lead on 21 minutes when a drop goal, sweetly struck with a penalty advantage coming, bisected the posts.

Stellar work at the breakdown and ill-discipline from the visitors continued to benefit Kiss' men and when Jacques Burger was adjudged to have tackled Williams with no arms, Jackson again duly obliged with another three points off the tee.

Ulster, however, didn't score again. With the half-hour mark approaching, the Premiership champions ventured into the opposition '22' for the first time and, when a grubber in behind forced Pienaar to tap into touch, Saracens looked to maul.

With Ulster illegally halting the attempt, the advantage was on and Saracens moved the ball wide at pace, worked the overlap with expertly applied precision and put Chris Wyles over in the corner as Trimble charged up and Louis Ludik was left unsure whether to stick or twist.

For all Ulster's early edge, they were undone by the quick skip pass and suddenly their advantage seemed slender.

Farrell couldn't nail a sideline conversion but the pressure was soon on Ulster again only for an overthrown line-out by Schalk Brits to offer a short reprieve.

With Saracens continuing to pepper the Ulster corners with measured grubbers, Craig Gilroy was adjudged to have ran across Chris Ashton's effort to retrieve a bouncing ball but Farrell pushed the penalty across the posts to preserve Ulster's 9-5 half-time lead.

Saracens threatened again straight from the restart after Tuohy and his lifter misjudged the loft of Farrell's boot but Nick Williams forced the turnover with Wiehahn Herbst repeating the trick soon after.

The big South African had been holding up against Lion Mako Vunipola in the early going but, when back-to-back decisions went against him, the tide had definitely turned.

Ulster were wise to Sarries' attempts to replicate their first-half score, however, even if the turnover saw Chris Henry temporarily lost to injury.

They were handed another chance to attack a 14-man Sarries soon after when Iain Henderson was stopped by Billy Vunipola, who was unlucky to see yellow.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, it was the English side who scored next when Goode measured a kick forward for Duncan Taylor, who gathered smartly and handed back inside for the full-back to go over.

When Farrell danced through the Ulster backline to free Taylor five minutes later, the visitors were on the verge of a bonus point.

As Kiss emptied his bench, the all-important fourth try seemed sure to come and, while it took until the final seconds, Billy Vunipola was the gleeful scorer when he mauled his way over with Best having received a yellow moments before.

Ulster must quickly regroup as while Europe is put on hold until the December double-header with Toulouse, a trip to the RDS to face Leinster in the PRO12 is just six days away.

Ulster: Louis Ludik, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Rory Best (captain), Wiehahn Herbst, Dan Tuohy, Franco van der Merwe, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.

Replacements: Rob Herring (for Williams,66), Kyle McCall (for Black, 58), Ricky Lutton, Robbie Diack (for van der Merwe, 66), Roger Wilson (for Henry 49-54 and 66), Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys, Peter Nelson.

Saracens: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt (captain), Chris Wyles, Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, Petrus du Plessis, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Michael Rhodes, Jacques Burger, Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Jamie George (for Brits, 52), Rhys Gill (for M Vunipola,75) Juan Figallo (for du Plessis), Ali Hargreaves (for Itoje, 78) Jackson Wray (for Rhodes, 58), Neil de Kock, Charlie Hodgson, Marcelo Bosch (for D Taylor, 70)

Match rating: 7/10

Man of match: Mako Vunipola

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