Skirving shines on the greyest of days

Saracens 18 Ulster 10
Click to follow

If ever you should find yourself dragged into a bar-room argument over club rugby's potential as a mass spectator sport, make absolutely certain that your opponent does not have a recording of this match to hand.

Knock-ons, collapsed scrums and the latest chapter in the game's inexhaustible book of baffling interpretations of the law were the dominant factors.

Mike Ford, Saracens' head coach and sidekick to the director of rugby Steve Diamond, called it a terrific game but had the decency to qualify the statement by referring to "two magnificent defences". Saracens now have three wins out of four in Pool Four but the labyrinthine nature of Heineken Cup pool play means they almost certainly will need a win in Biarritz in January to progress. Unless their attack is much more potent than yesterday's, the best they can hope for from their trip to the coast of south-west France is a suntan. Ulster are out.

Ford could not recall Saracens having been whistled up at the scrum so often in his 18 months attached to the club. The ins and outs of who did what to whom would not warm the cockles of the uninitiated, but the home side's South African tighthead Cobus Visagie was first driven to distraction by the adjudicating of Joël Jutge and then driven off the field with a sore elbow.

It negated a key area of strength for Saracens, for if meaningful charges off the back of the scrum are your thing, Ben Skirving is your man.

It had all looked so promising when there was a try to each side in the first five minutes. Skirving galloped on to a grubber through the Ulster defence by Ben Johnston, then Thomas Castaignède's kick was charged down by the visitors' openside Neil McMillan, who combined with Paul Steinmetz, Roger Wilson and Andrew Trimble to send Tommy Bowe to the line. Glen Jackson and David Humphreys added the conversions. But thereafter, the fumbles and grumbles held sway.

Saracens can be prone to a misplaced braggadocio, and a backhanded slap by Kevin Yates on Wilson brought the Saracens' loosehead a yellow card in the 23rd minute.

The few flights of fancy from Saracens backs emanated from Castaignède before he suffered a strained hamstring. His educated hacking almost got Tevita Vaikona in for a try and in first-half added time the rehabilitated Yates was at the base of a driven line-out for Sarries' second try. A penalty by Jackson after 66 minutes made it 15-7 and Saracens began thinking of a four-try bonus point. Instead, they almost got overhauled at the death.

Humphreys thumped over a 45-metre penalty for Ulster, and the head-scratching reached a furious intensity as Bowe, hurtling towards the left corner, put a foot in touch a split-second before giving what would have been a scoring pass to Kevin Maggs.

Crucially, the touch judge kept his flag down and so left the decision to Jutge, who in turn referred it to the television match official, even though the latter's remit for a player in touch only includes the act of scoring. Neither Ulster's Mark McCall nor anyone else claimed it was a valid try, but the TV official, Gerard Borreani of France, was not allowed to say it wasn't. Got it? Saracens saw time out with Jackson's second penalty, and added to the confusion with a statement that Andy Farrell, their highly-prized but as yet unplayed rugby league recruit, may face London Irish on 27 December. Then again, he may not.

Saracens: D Scarbrough (B J Russell, 86); P Bailey, T Castaignède (M Bartholomeusz, 69), B Johnston, T Vaikona; G Jackson, K Bracken (A Dickens, 61); K Yates, S Byrne, C Visagie (B Broster, 56), S Raiwalui (D Seymour, 80), K Chesney, H Vyvyan (capt), B Skirving (T Randell, 62), B T Russell (Broster, 25-32).

Ulster: B Cunningham (J Topping, 72); T Bowe, K Maggs, A Trimble, P Steinmetz; D Humphreys, K Campbell (I Boss, 57); B Young (J Fitzpatrick, 57), R Best, S Best (capt), J Harrison, M McCullough (R Caldwell, 68), N Best (S Ferris, 34), R Wilson, N McMillan.

Referee: J Jutge (France).