Heineken Cup 2014: Three talking points as Saracens topple Ulster

Heineken Cup 2014: Three talking points as Saracens edge to a 17-15 win against Ulster at Ravenhill on Saturday

Payne sees Red

What was set up to be a monumental battle took an early twist as New Zealander Jared Payne was red carded by French referee Jerôme Garces for a reckless challenge on his opposite number Alex Goode while in the air. Had Goode’s head not made contact with the ground on landing it may well have been yellow and looked clear that there was no intent to take the player. Pleas from Ulster captain Johann Muller that his Payne’s eyes were on the ball were ignored and Payne walked off while Goode was stretchered off. Muller later said, in his view, it should have been a yellow, while Saracens captain Steve Borthwick refused to get drawn into the debate about whether it should have been yellow or red. Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe also said post-match that it was yellow at worst and the Irish province will feel aggrieved at coming so close to defeating the Aviva Premiership leaders despite playing 75 minutes with 14 men and losing Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar—two of their most influential players—to injury so early in the match. Ulster’s misery will be compounded as they look to hang on to their place in the top three of the RaboDirect Pro12 and the injuries and a potential ban for Payne will not make the disappointment any easier to get over.

Ulster the brave

It was an incredible performance from Anscombe’s men to go down by just two points. The match had already been dubbed one too close to call and to push a side which has an embarrassment of international riches among its squad is testament to how far Ulster have come in recent years. It is difficult to be critical of Ulster in defence – tries for Saracens were inevitable without a full-back and duly arrived although not as frequently as when Wales thrashed Scotland last month when Stuart Hogg departed the Six Nations clash. On another day, Ulster would have been thrashed but backed by almost 15,500 passionate supporters they came so close to what would have been the upset of the tournament given the circumstances. There is no doubt that Ulster a force to be reckoned with and strive as the underdogs. They may not have the star names of Leinster, but their spirit and determination to succeed is unquestionable as shown throughout the match, and especially at the end as they put together some 35 phases as they went in search of a penalty or drop-goal attempt for. Pienaar starting was always a risk and his injury early in the match and his will to continue as long as he did epitomises that further. While they will be called brave and have similar terms applied to them, it will never make up for what could have been against a side packed with South African and English muscle and the flair of Ashton among the backs.

Sarries do enough

The London club may have reached a second successive semi-final and they can be proud of that achievement, but it was a far from perfect performance. Maybe the time spent on cheeky breaks to New York between matches would be better spent in training. Sarries error count almost proved costly, especially with a man of Ruan Pienaar’s kicking accuracy on the other side – had his radar been perfect, Saracens would have lost and that’s something which they have to consider as worrying. Owen Farrell also looked relatively ordinary after stunning performances for England and Saracens since his return from the Six Nations – it is unusual for the outside-half to miss so many efforts at the posts and while he may have set up Ashton for the final try and made the conversion which proved to be the difference, but it’s the least to expect from England’s current first-choice 10. Ultimately, Saracens’ defensive systems proved too much for Ulster to breakthrough and they deserve praise, particularly the forwards, for keeping Ulster at bay with the clock red. Captain Borthwick rightly praised his colleagues for that and it showed again that Saracens can fight for 80 minutes, which they will need to do and cut out the needless errors in the breakdown if they are to get past Clermont Auvergne to reach the final.

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