Saracens secured a home quarter-final in the Champions Cup with a round of matches still to go following another hugely impressive performance with a thoroughly deserved bonus-point victory at Allianz Park.
Ulster threatened briefly to cause an upset, enjoying an excellent 20-minute spell in the first half, but a failure to take chances, a massively debilitating penalty count, an at-times misfiring set piece proved too big a millstone.
Jared Payne made an eye catching return after almost three months out injured, demonstrating his superb footballing qualities. Stuart McCloskey was good at times but the majority of the stand-out players belonged to the home side with Owen Farrell despite an off-day with his boot (five from nine place-kicks) controlling the game intelligently.
The Saracens pack, all contributing handsomely, dominated their opponents in the tight and once they sorted out the breakdown in most facets of the game. The bench gave them even more momentum.
Ulster didn’t get the losing bonus point they craved but if they can get one next week at home to Oyonnax, then the knock-out stages are still on.
Saracens made a late change to their starting line-up, losing captain and England centre Brad Barritt to injury with hooker Jamie George leading the side in his teammate’s absence. Nick Tompkins came into the replacements.
Ulster will have been disappointed at the interval following such a brilliant start, the old adage about taking opportunities particularly apposite, as Paddy Jackson shoved a 23-metre penalty wide of the far upright and then from a five metre lineout, an underthrow from captain Rory Best gave Robbie Diack little chance of securing possession.
In fairness to the flanker he had a justifiable complaint that Michael Rhodes grabbed one of his arms while he was in the air and the visitors could reasonably have been awarded a penalty. In not taking those chances, they allowed Saracens to muster a second wind, and they finished the half very strongly when number eight Billy Vunipola was driven over from a close-in lineout maul.
The Irish province will also rue fragility in the set piece, three turnovers at the lineout and a couple of scrum penalties, the second of which saw Wiehahn Herbst, the transgressor, helped from the field with a leg injury.
Owen Farrell drove Ulster back deep into the visitors’ 22, replacement Ricky Lutton was penalised for collapsing the first maul but after going to the corner again the home side survived Ulster’s initial shunt in the maul, to regroup and force their way over. Farrell’s touchline conversion have Saracens a 13-7 halftime lead.
The England outhalf won’t have been happy with only kicking three out of five from the tee during those opening 40-minutes, missing two penalty chances. He did kick an early penalty before Ulster responded with a gorgeous try.
Jackson identified a six-on three overlap out wide, the excellent Stuart McCloskey made a 35-metre break and although Ulster were thwarted in the opposite corner, they moved the ball wide again and the returning Jared Payne, produced a beautifully weighted grubber-kick that Luke Marshall ran onto to touch down. Jackson’s conversion from the touchline was exquisitely struck.
Farrell missed a couple of penalties and although Saracens dominated territorially, Ulster snaffled three turnovers at the breakdown, to relieve the pressure at various stages of the half. Best’s decision to go to the corner from a 12-metre penalty was underlined by the throw, and ultimately a turnover. Jackson missed a penalty and then the momentum shifted again.
Farrell’s penalty and Billy Vunipola’s try ensured that the home side’s dressing room was the happier. Ulster coach Les Kiss will have impressed upon his charges the need for improved discipline, sharper line speed and the need to be more accurate in the set piece.
McCloskey was getting Ulster over the gain-line and Craig Gilroy and Payne, offered glimpses that they were capable of causing Saracens problems. The visitors refused to be cowed by their set piece issues prior to the interval, with Jackson nudging a penalty into the corner four minutes after the re-start. On foot of a penalty advantage, the Ulster outhalf went for a cross-kick, but when play was called back bisected the posts from the tee.
At 13-10 Ulster were back in the contest but again their discipline let them down, Lutton penalised at a ruck; Farrell made no mistake from long range, facilitated by an upright. The visitors conceded another penalty soon after the re-start that gave Saracens field position once again and after battering away for 90 seconds on the threshold of the Ulster 22, Farrell made a decisive intervention.
The England outhalf dummied a pass, glided outside Robbie Diack, and concluded his angled run with a try scoring pass for Duncan Taylor; the only disappointment that he couldn’t tag on the conversion. Saracens had made a definitive break on the scoreboard at 21-10.
The English club confirmed at much on 58-minutes when secondrow Maro Itoje, one of eight Saracens players called into the England squad, squeezed over from a metre, after the home side had splintered Ulster’s resistance, driving a lineout maul 25-metres.
Farrell missed the conversion but Ulster’s day got appreciably worse when first Gilroy received a yellow card - accumulation of penalties conceded - and then replacement hooker Schalk Britz profited from his foot-speed and brittle defence to score his side’s bonus point, fourth try. As both sides emptied the bench, the only matter to be settled was the final margin on the scoreboard.
Replacement Ian Humphreys showed decent stamina to intercept a pass and run 70-metres to score under the posts, converting his lung bursting sally but unfortunately it was mere window dressing.
2 mins: Farrell penalty, 3-0; 4: Marshall try, Jackson conversion, 3-7; 19: Farrell penalty, 6-7; 36: B Vunipola try, Farrell conversion, 13-7. Halftime: 13-7. 44: Jackson penalty, 13-10; 48: Farrell penalty, 16-10; 52: Taylor try, 21-10; 58: Itoje try, 26-10; 62: Britz try, Farrell conversion, 33-10; 70: Humphreys try, Humphreys conversion, 33-17;
B Ransom; C Ashton, M Bosch, D Taylor, C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipolo, J George (capt), P Du Plessis; M Itoje, G Kruis; M Rhodes, W Frazer, B Vunipola.
Replacements: S Brits for George 55 mins; J Figallo for Du Plessis 55 mins; N de Kock for Wigglesworth 63 mins; J Wray for Fraser 63 mins; N Tompkins for Bosch 71 mins.
J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (capt), W Herbst; A O’Connor, F van der Merwe; R Diack, S Reidy, R Wilson.
Replacements: R Lutton for Herbst 35 mins; R Herring for Best 61 mins; I Humphreys for Jackson 61 mins; C Ross for van der Merwe 66 mins; R Scholes for Marshall 71 mins; L stevenson for O’Connor 75 mins; C Black for McCall 75 mins; P Marshall for Pienaar 75 mins.
Referee: J Garces (Fra)
Yellow card: C Gilroy (Ulster) 61 minutes