Ulster’s 2015/16 European campaign got off to a disappointing start tonight at Kingspan Stadium as an exhilarating final 20 minutes from English champions Saracens – unbeaten in all competitions this term – saw them fall to a heavy defeat.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) November 20, 2015
Two penalties and a drop goal from Paddy Jackson in an evenly-matched first half had given Neil Doak’s side a slender lead despite Chris Wyles’ score, but killer tries from Alex Goode and Duncan Taylor either side of the hour mark put paid to hopes of a winning start before Billy Vunipola sealed the four-try bonus point at the death.
Ulster started on the front foot, kicking and chasing with appetite, and not before long came the game’s first controversy – Saracens flanker Michael Rhodes seeing yellow on five minutes for a dangerous tackle on the airborne Andrew Trimble as the winger leapt to collect a high ball.
The similarity to the incident which saw Jared Payne sent off in the same fixture two years ago was not lost on the partisan Kingspan crowd, who bayed for blood – but referee Romain Poite opted for the less severe sanction after the action was reviewed on the big screen. The fact that Ruan Pienaar’s resulting long-range penalty fell short of the posts only added to the home fans’ sense of injustice.
Once Owen Farrell had also fluffed his lines with a kick at goal from distance, a high Sarries tackle gifted Paddy Jackson the first points of the encounter in front of the posts, and despite Rhodes’ return on 15 minutes, Ulster kept control of the game throughout the remainder of the quarter, Jackson dropping a goal after a fine period of home pressure.
With Jacques Burger receiving no more than a stern talking-to for cutting down Nick Williams at the shins with an illegal shoulder, Jackson extended the lead to nine on 25 minutes, prompting the visitors to launch their first meaningful attack. Their clinical nature was evident as the ball was sprayed from right to left off the back of a close-range lineout for winger Wyles – already author of two tries in Round One against Toulouse – to ground in the corner.
Farrell’s wide conversion misfired, but a surrendered home lineout on 36 minutes ensured play remained in the Ulster half for the rest of the period – although the out-half again missed the target from a penalty after Craig Gilroy had infringed on the wing.
Half-Time Score Ulster 9 Saracens 5
After a sluggish start to the second half by both sides, Saracens clicked into gear on 50 minutes and Ulster had Rory Best to thank for a try-saving intervention as the hooker managed to keep pace with Richard Wigglesworth as he chased Wyles’ deft kick into the ’22’, and force the knock-on from the scrum-half.
Ulster responded in kind, Henderson leading a muscular charge down the middle until halted – once again illegally – by Billy Vunipola’s shoulder, a challenge which saw the England man sent to the bin. Ulster pressed from the resulting lineout for a good three minutes, but to no avail as stern Saracens defence eventually saw them clear their lines.
Defence effortlessly turned into attack on the hour mark as an ambitious kick down the right wing bounced kindly for Taylor, who supplied Goode for a try from nowhere, converted by Farrell.
Trailing now for the first time, Ulster did well to contain the next series of onslaughts from the visitors, but were powerless on 65 minutes when a swivel of Farrell’s hips outwitted four prospective tacklers on the left wing, the dummy creating the space for Taylor to collect and run over unopposed.
Vunipola added the bonus-point try from a rolling maul in the very last minute to leave Ulster with it all to do to get back on track when Toulouse are the visitors to the Kingspan on 11 December.
Full-Time Score Ulster 9 Saracens 27