Saracens produced a stunning display to come from behind to beat Ulster Rugby 27-9 at the Kingspan Stadium, and in the process pick up a try scoring bonus point in Pool 1 of the Champions Cup.
Trailing 9-5 at half-time, Mark McCall’s side inspired by outside half Owen Farrell and Scotland centre Duncan Taylor scored two quick fire second half tries to end a tough and uncompromising contest that saw three yellow cards.
An early try from Chris Wyles began the comeback after two penalty goals and a drop goal from Paddy Jackson put Ulster in a commanding 9-0 lead.
Scores from Alex Goode, Duncan Taylor and a late try from Billy Vunipola sealed a famous win for the north Londoners who maintain their perfect start to the 2015/16 season.
After a fine three-try defeat of four-time winners Toulouse at Allianz Park the previous Saturday, Mark McCall’s side headed into tonight’s game in fine fettle.
Having faced Ulster on six occasions, since the two sides first locked horns at Vicarage Road in 1999 in European competition, fixtures against these two sides have always produced close contests. Only once since their first meeting in the tournament has either club managed to score more than 21 points in a single match.
These games are never short of incident either, and once again the seventh instalment of Ulster vs Saracens had some early talking points that would have the Ravenhill faithful’s tongues-a-waggin’ after Sarries loose forward was yellow carded for a clumsy hit in the air on Andrew Trimble.
With minds immediately cast back to Jared Payne’s ugly challenge on Alex Goode in 2014 the decision (a correct one from Monsieur Poite) to yellow card the South African flank was met from the predictable consummation from the Ulster fans packed into the Kingspan.
Both side’s missed early long range penalties. First Ruan Pienaar then Owen Farrell couldn’t navigate the swirling Belfast sleet and wind. Home side outside half Paddy Jackson though would register the first score after 15 minutes play, when Saracens were adjudged have strayed offside at the ruck.
Ulster were clearly the dominant force in the opening quarter of the game, and Jackson would add another three points with a drop goal to double his side’s lead, before slotting over another penalty goal after Jacques Burger was adjudged to have not used his arms in the tackle.
Saracens though are experienced players in Europe, and refused to press the panic button. Instead they continued to plug away to find territory.
Their patience would pay dividends on the half hour mark when Chris Wyles crossed for the games first try. After a lovely cut out pass from Owen Farrell freed Alex Goode, the Sarries full-back hit the gas and fed the USA wing who finished with ease to score his third try of the competition. Farrell failed to convert.
If Ulster could claim the first quarter, then Mark McCall’s side could certainly lay claim to the second twenty minutes as they began to grow into the game.
Farrell missed another difficult attempt at goal as the Premiership champions looked to pin back the Ulster lead, as the home side went into the warm sanctuary of the Ravenhill changing rooms with a four point lead.
The opening to the second half was a much reserved affair. Like two boxers jabbing the middle rounds, neither side wanted to give too much away.
The contest would eventually reignite on the back on a pretty questionable sin binning of Billy Vunipola. When the 117kgs frame of Iain Henderson is met by the 128kgs Billy Vunipola at full pelt, then one may expect the two players to collide in such a nature that results in both ‘bouncing’ from one another. The officials though took a dim view, as they yellow carded the Sarries No8 for a ‘dangerous tackle’ despite Vunipola clearly attempting to use his arms in the tackle.
Yet again though, with a numerical disadvantage Sarries dug deep, and would silence the home crowd when Alex Goode crossed for his side’s second try of the evening on the back of a miraculous piece of skill from Duncan Taylor. Collecting a chip kick from Goode the Scotland centre collected and with superb vision and awareness offloaded the ball behind his own head to find Goode who raced away to score.
Minutes later, it would be Owen Farrell’s turn to light-up the contest as the England playmaker dummied his way through the white wall of Ulster shirts to find Duncan Taylor to score. This made the scores 17-9 in favour of Saracens just as the heavens opened over the ground.
Sarries had a stranglehold on the game, and more importantly, the territory. As Pienaar and Jackson repeatedly looked to drive their team forward from their own 22, the Ulster halfback pairing just couldn’t find the Ravenhill turf with the Sarries backfield cover suitably covering the pitch.
Farrell sent over a penalty after 73 minutes to extend his side’s lead to 11 points to keep their Pool 1 opponents at arm’s length.
As full-time edged closer Sarries would clinch the try-scoring bonus point with Billy Vunipola rolling over to score on the back of a devastating Sarries driving maul.
Final Score: Ulster 9 Saracens 27
Penalties: Jackson x 3
Cons: Farrell, Hodgson
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar; 1 Callum Black, 2 Rory Best (c), 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 4 Dan Tuohy, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 6 Iain Henderson, 7 Chris Henry, 8 Nick Williams.
Replacements: 16 Kyle McCall, 17 Rob Herring, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Roger Wilson, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Peter Nelson.
Replacements used Herring for Best (67); McCall for Black (59); Lutton for Herbst (71); Diack for van de Merwe(67) ;Wilson for Henry (67); Marshall for Pienaar (66); Humphreys for Jackson (71); Nelson for Ludik (74).
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Schalk Brits, 3 Petrus Du Plessis, 4 George Kruis, 5 Maro Itoje, 6 Michael Rhodes, 7 Jacques Burger, 8 Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil De Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Marcelo Bosch.
Replacements used George for Brits (52); Gill for M.Vunipola (75); Figallo for Du Plessis (55); Hargreaves for Itoje (77); Wray for Rhodes (58); De Kock for Wigglesworth (77); Hodgson for Barritt (73); Bosch for Taylor (70).