The Premiership's middle order of Gloucester, Wasps and Bath may have been blown away in the Challenge Cup in the past few days, but last night at Twickenham it was the start of the turn of the opening bats in the Heineken Cup, and the league leaders, Saracens, smashed Ulster out of the ground.
Though Saracens had a few difficulties in the scrum they unleashed a crushing domination of the gain-line over the top Irish side in the Pro 12 long before Chris Ashton joyously put his mixed exploits for England of late behind him with his team's second try in the 63rd minute that opened a decisive 18-point gap. It was not quite the beating Ulster suffered at the hands of Leinster in last May's Heineken Cup final here, but it was good enough for Saracens as they made their way through to a second semi-final in the competition.
They will attempt to go one better than their 2008 loss to Munster when they host the winners of today's tie between Toulon and England's second-placed club, Leicester, here again in three weeks' time.
Harlequins, currently third in the Premiership, have their sip of Heineken this afternoon, too, against Munster.
Heavy investment from the South African Cape allows Saracens to carry annual losses of more than £5 million along with the English banner in Europe, enabling their players to go on mid-season trips such as the one to Verbier the week before last. Ulster had their own South African stalwarts, Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar, on parade, and Tommy Bowe was lurking on the bench for his first appearance since the wing damaged knee ligaments in December – something of interest to the watching Lions coach, Warren Gatland, no doubt.
Meanwhile John Afoa, the tighthead prop, showed no signs of jet lag from a trip in recent days so he could be present at his daughter's birth in New Zealand, sharing in three promising first-half scrums for Ulster: a couple of pressuring nudges on Saracens put-ins were followed in the 31st minute by a penalty for the Red Hand gang when Sarries' England prop Mako Vunipola was spat out of a retreating pack. Pienaar – no relation to the former Springbok captain Francois, who sits on Saracens' board – collected three points for that, as the scrum-half had done on 26 minutes when the ball was killed in front of the hosts' posts.
But the lead at half-time was Saracens', by a handy 16-6, although a dollop of luck played its part. Owen Farrell was selected ahead of Charlie Hodgson at fly-half as a sure indication of the muscular match anticipated by his side's head coach, Mark McCall, who played for Ulster in their 1999 European Cup-winning season.
Farrell kicked penalties after two and 28 minutes, and his England pal Brad Barritt was prominent over the ball while Joel Tomkins further out does what he does, which is run very hard in straight lines. When the officials missed a feathery deflection off Saracens No 8 Ernst Joubert's hand as Ulster attempted to deal with the restart following Pienaar's second penalty, Schalk Brits was able to throw into an attacking Saracens line-out in the 22 to bring the opening try.
A neat move saw Steve Borthwick, who had both knocked on and ripped possession for his team earlier in the half, leap at the tail and divert the ball immediately to the middle for a driving maul. A couple of shoves later, the flanker Will Fraser dived over and Farrell converted before kicking his third penalty to reward another expert snaffle by Barritt.
Ulster were trying to graft some beauty on to the all-pervading brute force. But while Saracens' chairman, Nigel Wray, used his notes inside the match programme to align his club's philosophy with that of the Barcelona football academy in creating "good people", the front cover simply carried a photo of a wolf: one of a pair invited to a team meeting recently. It was an unsubtle emblem of the pack mentality Sarries bring to their defence. The peripatetic wanderers who are unbeaten at a variety of home grounds this season are now going in for lycanthropy.
A blocking offence by Ulster ruined their first chance of the second half and instead the next score went to Saracens, a simple fourth penalty for Farrell, the England fly-half to whom Twickenham is comfortably familiar, after a maul offence. Pienaar quickly struck back, Farrell did likewise before Ashton's emphatic, match-settling score.
Alex Goode's scuttling run breached Ulster's first line of cover, and Barritt dummied one way before feeding a no doubt bellowing Ashton on his inside. The effervescent Wiganer ran round Paddy Jackson and Bowe, who had just come on, to finish with his trademark leap over the line. A spectacular jumping catch by Brits brought the hooker a bang that had him limp off, but apart from a late try for Iain Henderson, converted by Pienaar, little else went wrong for Saracens.
Saracens A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins (C Hodgson, 73), B Barritt, D Strettle (C Wyles, 65); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 51); M Vunipola (R Gill, 57), S Brits (J Smit, 59), M Stevens (P du Plessis, 76), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha, 57), K Brown, E Joubert, W Fraser (J Wray, 73).
Ulster J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave (T Bowe, 58), L Marshall (S Olding, 68), C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court (C Black, 73), R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt; R Diack, 64), D Tuohy, I Henderson, N Williams, C Henry.
Referee R Poite (France).
Tries: Fraser, Ashton
Pens: Farrell 5
Pens: Pienaar 3
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