Saracens are through to the Heineken Cup semi-final for a second successive season after beating Ulster 15-17 in a tense game at Ravenhill, Belfast.
Saracens ran in three tries as they beat the Rabo12 Direct side in a game that was full of incident, with both sides exhibiting fantastic commitment and courage in an absorbing contest.
Chris Ashton scored twice, with lock forward Mouritz Botha scoring his sided third of the night in the second half.
Ulster were nervy in the opening moments, with full-back Jared Payne sending a kick out on the full.
Saracens had the first chance of the game to get on the scoreboard, with Ulster penalised at the breakdown, but Owen Farrell dragged attempt wide of the uprights.
Moments after Farrell’s miss came the game’s major talking point; chasing Paddy Jackson’s swirling Garry Owen, Ulster full-back Payne took out a leaping Alex Goode in the air in very careless fashion, leaving the Saracens full-back injured on the floor.
Referee Jérôme Grâces felt that he had no option but to send off the New Zealander, much to the dislike and dismay of the home faithful – Chris Wyles subsequently replaced Goode who was stretchered off.
Ulster to their credit rallied, with No.8 Nick Williams and winger Tommy Bowe both making breaks through the heart of the Saracens ruck defence but to no avail.
Saracens again had to reshuffle their back line, with Scotland international Duncan Taylor limping off with a muscular strain. Charlie Hodgson came on to replace him, with Owen Farrell shifting to outside centre to accommodate the veteran fly-half. Ulster also experienced some disruption, with their inspirational hooker Rory Best succumbing to injury to be forced off.
Despite being down to 14 men, it was Ulster who would score the game’s first points, with locals adopted favourite Ruan Pienaar slotting over well struck penalty after 15 minutes.
The South African half-back had the chance to repeat the feat moments later, after Saracens were penalised at the lineout but was wayward with his effort.
Playing with a strong Belfast wind behind their backs the locals were defying the numerical disadvantage with a series of half chances that they maybe should have capitalised on.
Ulster’s lack of clinical edge was duly punished moments later as Chris Ashton scored the game’s first try. Reminiscent of his try in the same game last season at Twickenham Stadium, Ashton rounded the defensive cover to score a well taken try. in the build-up, Charlie Hodgson picked up a Richard Wigglesworth pass from his boot laces and fed Ashton with a clever inside pass, Ashton did the rest with a scorching finish in the right hand corner. Farrell failed to convert.
As the half wore on Saracens could have crossed for another try, only for Chris Wyles pass to go behind left winger David Strettle; from the loose ball Tommy Bowe raced away and kicked up field and took the home side into the Saracens 22. After a well drilled lineout and rolling maul began to send Sarries backwards, Referee Grâces pinged the Sarries forwards for coming in at the side. Pienaar edged his side in front with a well struck penalty.
Right before half time, Saracens ill-discipline again was punished by Pienaar who coolly slotted over his third kick of the evening to give the hosts a four point lead at the break.
Saracens made the perfect start to the second half when Richard Wigglesworth found Mouritz Botha unmarked on the right wing for the lock forward to score to give his side a slender one point lead. Farrell again missed the conversion.
Ulster then lost Ruan Pienaar, whose troublesome shoulder looked to have been inhibiting the Springbok No.9 all game in truth. With Pienaar now off the pitch, Paddy Jackson took over the kicking duties and the exciting outside half went mighty close to giving his side the lead after the 54th minute but his effort bounced off the uprights to fall wide of the sticks.
The game was in the balance, and with the Ravenhill faithful roaring them on Ulster looked like a team possessed. Saracens had to silence the home crowd and they duly did when a well-judged Owen Farrell cross kick found Chris Ashton on the right hand edge who scored the simplest of his nine tries in Europe this season. Farrell importantly converted, meaning Saracens held an eight point lead.
If Saracens thought the game was won with only ten minutes to go then they would be mistaken as Ulster threw everything at the Sarries defence. The away sides’ discipline twice offered Paddy Jackson the chance to reduce his sides’ arrears, and the young Ulstermen made no mistake to make it a two point ball game.
Ulster plugged away, and in the final few minutes it was 36 phases worth of Northern Irish endeavor, but the Saracens defence stood firm as Saracens held on to win and provide the perfect homecoming for their Director of Rugby Mark McCall.
Ulster (9) 15
Pens: Pienaar 3, Jackson 2
Saracens (5) 17
Tries: Ashton 2, Botha
Ulster: J Payne, A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, T Bowe, P Jackson, R Pienaar, T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, R Wilson, N Williams, C Henry.
Replacements: Gilroy for Trimble (65), P Marshall for Pienaar (50), Herring for Best (13), Diack for Muller (69), Henderson for Tuohy (60), Ferris for Williams (55).
Not used: Warwick, R Lutton.
Sent-off: Payne (5).
Saracens: A Goode, C Ashton, D Taylor, B Barritt, D Strettle, O Farrell, R Wigglesworth, M Vunipola, S Brits, J Johnston, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha, B Vunipola, J Burger, E Joubert.
Replacements: Wyles for Goode (5), Hodgson for Taylor (11), de Kock for Wigglesworth (69), Stevens for Johnston (48), Brown for Joubert (65).
Not used: George, Barrington, Sheriff.
Ref: Jerome Garces (France).