The blip of last week’s first loss of the season was not repeated by Saracens, and by putting four tries past Ulster in an ultimately clear-cut win, England’s European specialists impressively guaranteed themselves a home quarter-final in the Champions Cup with another round of the pool stage yet to play.
England’s head coach Eddie Jones was here watching, and having made Saracens the core of his Six Nations Championship squad in midweek, by naming eight of them among the 33 overall, he must have viewed the pulverising performances of the Vunipola brothers and Maro Itoje, in particular, with satisfied eyes.
Owen Farrell will not be happy at his goal-kicking success rate of five from nine, but the fly-half, who is thought likely to start at inside-centre for England in Scotland on 6 February, was pugnacious in taking the ball to Ulster’s defensive line, and he created the second Saracens try for Duncan Taylor (a Scot) after 52 minutes with a smooth show-and-go. Farrell also spent the last 20 minutes or so as a No 12, which was handy in the circumstances, although that switch with Saracens is far from unheard of.
For Saracens to stage the quarter-final on this ground they will require a temporary licence to lift capacity from 10,000 to the stipulated 15,000. In the meantime, a win in Toulouse next Saturday could secure top seeding in Europe’s last eight in April, when their opponents may be Ulster again, if the Irish province qualify as one of the three second-placed teams.
If, on the flipside, Ulster, Leinster and Munster all fail to get through, Ireland will be bereft of a European Cup quarter-finalist for the first time since 1998. French and English clubs are signing more of the overseas stars these days, while another destabilising factor has been the retirement or departure of the Munster and Leinster heavyweights led by Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell.
As European semi-finalists for the past three seasons, including a final in 2014, Saracens are mad-keen to show they can take the ultimate step. “We had a few words among ourselves during the week and got our energy back,” said Farrell, referring to last week’s setback at Harlequins.
And in that galvanised mood or any other, Saracens are never a team to take on with a deficiency in ball-carrying heft. Ulster made the most of mishandling by the English champions to lead 7-3 towards the end of the opening quarter, including a try for Luke Marshall made by a break from the lively centre Stuart McCloskey, but they badly missed the injured forwards Nick Williams, Chris Henry and Iain Henderson.
Only full-back Alex Goode of Saracens’ England octet was missing, with “a slight knock”, while Brad Barritt, who was dropped from Jones’s immediate plans, was a late withdrawal with a groin injury.
The gaping space afforded for Ulster’s try, with Jared Payne marking his first appearance since the World Cup by kicking through to Marshall, suggested Saracens’ uncertainty at the defensive reshuffle. There was a petulant high tackle by Chris Ashton too – the wing had been recalled by Jones with a description of him as “mad as a cut snake” – and it needed a line-out steal by Saracens flanker Michael Rhodes with 29 minutes gone to avert further trouble. Farrell missed two penalties from the left, after knocking two over from the right, while Jackson missed once for Ulster, as the French referee Jérôme Garcès did his usual act of insisting on squeaky clean breakdowns.
So Saracens’ relief was palpable when Farrell’s gutsy touch-finder led to a mauling try by Billy Vunipola just before half-time. Itoje caught Jamie George’s throw, and a slew of Ulstermen were left on the deck as backs joined the drive in favoured Sarries style. The conversion by Farrell had Saracens 13-7 up.
Billy’s propping brother Mako has surely never been playing better, and must be set to start at Murrayfield. As for the 21-year-old Itoje, his physical attributes were epitomised in the way he bounced to his feet to finish Saracens’ third try on 58 minutes after making an initial surge. Schalk Brits burst away from a maul for the fourth try, and Ulster’s only scoring riposte was a converted interception score by Ian Humphreys.
Saracens: B Ransom (C Hodgson, 62); C Ashton, M Bosch (N Tompkins, 72), D Taylor, C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 64); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 66), J George (capt, S Brits, 57), P Du Plessis (J Figallo, 57), M Itoje, G Kruis, M Rhodes, W Fraser (J Wray, 64), B Vunipola.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall (R Scholes, 72), S McCloskey, C Gilroy (sin-bin, 62-72); P Jackson (I Humphreys, 62), R Pienaar (P Marshall, 76); K McCall (C Black, 75), R Best (capt, R Herring, 62), W Herbst (R Lutton, 36); A O’Connor (L Stevenson, 75), F van der Merwe (C Ross, 67); R Diack, S Reidy, R Wilson.
Referee: J Garcès (France).