Ulster 15 Saracens 17 match report: Chris Ashton's tries help Sarries exploit Jared Payne dismissal
England wing's eighth and ninth tries of this season's Heineken Cup all products of visitor's one-man advantage
Pity poor Ulster, for whom a shatteringly early sending-off fatally undermined their big-day christening of the rebuilt, expanded Ravenhill Stadium with a Heineken Cup quarter-final.
The raucous East Belfast atmosphere turned borderline ugly as soon as the red-hand province's full-back Jared Payne was shown a red card for a dangerous tackle with only four minutes played, and Saracens kept just enough composure amid the cacophany to score three tries and set up a last-four tie with Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham in three weekends' time.
Chris Ashton's competition-leading eighth and ninth Heineken Cup tries of the season, sandwiching Mouritz Botha's simple dot-down in the 49th minute, were all products of Saracens' one-man advantage. Yet somehow Ulster stayed in contention to the end, exploiting a 13-6 penalty count against the English Premiership's leaders and top try-scorers, until a frantic closing series of 35 phases crashed against Saracens' defensive brick wall.
Incident and injuries littered the match. Some of Ulster's folk heroes fell flat – Ruan Pienaar, the multi-talented scrum-half, succumbed to a lingering shoulder injury early in the second half; Rory Best, their Ireland hooker, went off much earlier – but Chris Henry, Steve Ferris from the bench and Paddy Jackson, taking over the kicking from Pienaar to land two monstrous penalties that cut into Saracens' 17-9 late on, repaid the crowd's fervour. Owen Farrell missed four kicks at goal, but Billy Vunipola's return from six weeks out injured was a triumph of blasting from the base of the scrum.
Payne, a New Zealander with designs on playing for Ireland when he qualifies on residency later this year, only had eyes for the ball as he chased an up-and-under by Jackson, and clattered into Alex Goode as the Saracen made a big leap to catch the ball. But the recklessness as Goode was flipped around and over on to his shoulder, with his head hitting the ground as he landed, persuaded the referee Jérôme Garcès into the ultimate sanction. Goode was soon up and about and watching from the bench, where the dismissed Payne gave him a handshake. "We wouldn't have complained if it had been a yellow card," said Mark McCall, Saracens' director of rugby, and a former Ulster captain and coach.
Although Ulster led with a penalty by Pienaar, the inevitable gaps soon appeared. A set-move try in the 23rd minute came from a strong scrummaging shove that allowed Charlie Hodgson – an early replacement for Duncan Taylor, and installed initially at first receiver – to feed a sassy inside pass to Ashton, who ran 45 metres and veered around the emergency left wing Luke Marshall to finish with a trademark dive.
Farrell's missed penalty and conversion gave Ulster succour. And with Pienaar kicking two from three in the last 11 minutes of the first half – Saracens variously penalised in the maul and scrum and for encroaching in front of a kicker – the province had an unlikely lead of 9-5. But Botha's try wide on the right and Ashton's second score converted by Farrell on 66 minutes appeared definitive, even if Saracens twice wasted gigantic overlaps in between. Ashton received a lovely, flat cross-kick from Farrell on the bounce, after a typical Vunipola burst.
But still Ulster came. Jackson's 45-metre penalties in the 70th and 73rd minutes were followed by a walking-round offence by the Sarries pack. Ulster kicked to touch but Rob Herring's throw was gobbled up by Botha, sealing Saracens' second successive Twickenham semi-final.
Last year they were battered and beaten by Toulon; this time, a May final in Cardiff is the prize if they can overcome different French opposition on Saturday 26 April.
Ulster J Payne; A Trimble (C Gilroy, 65), D Cave, L Marshall, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall, 49); T Court, R Best (R Herring, 13), J Afoa, J Muller (capt, R Diack, 69), D Tuohy (I Henderson, 60), R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams (S Ferris, 55).
Saracens A Goode (C Wyles, 5); C Ashton, D Taylor (C Hodgson, 11), B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 69); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 74), S Brits, J Johnston (M Stevens, 47), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha, E Joubert (K Brown, 65), J Burger, B Vunipola.
Referee J Garces (France).
Pens: Pienaar 3, Jackson 2
Tries: Ashton 2, Botha
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