McCall praises Saracens’ work effort against Ulster
Former Ravenhill hero delighted his side learned lesson from Clermont defeat
Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall speaks with his captain Steve Borthwick following their victory over Ulster at Twickenham. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images
Saracens boss Mark McCall saluted his players’ “unbelievable” work ethic after they booked a Heineken Cup semi-final place against Toulon or Leicester at Twickenham.
The Aviva Premiership leaders’ 27-16 victory over Ulster was secured through tries by England wing Chris Ashton and England backrow hopeful Will Fraser.
Outhalf Owen Farrell kicked 17 points, with Ulster reduced to a late Iain Henderson touchdown, plus three penalties and a conversion from scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar.
“They were probably the best team we had played all season,” said former Ulster and Ireland centre McCall.
“For us to be 27-9 up with five minutes to go says a lot about the quality of our performance.
“We’ve worked unbelievably hard, especially defensively, where we were brilliant throughout the match. We took our opportunities.
“Twelve months ago we were very disappointed with how we coped physically against Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-finals, but 12 months on we believed beforehand that we had moved on, matured as a group and were a better team. The players have an unbelievable work ethic for each other.”
McCall also paid tribute to Ashton, who lost form drastically during England’s Six Nations campaign but whose second-half touchdown put Saracens out of sight.
“He has had a lot of stick,” McCall added. “But the last three weeks for us he has been exceptional. He took his try magnificently today — it was a real finisher’s try — but he had a great game apart from that.
“We defended really well, we were good at the breakdown and forced them to play most of the game from their own half, and when we got into their 22 we generally came away with something.”
Saracens encountered problems in the scrums during an opening 40 minutes that Ulster shaded with regard to the set-pieces, but prop Matt Stevens and skipper Steve Borthwick saluted a noticeable revival during the second half.
“Ulster were very good in the first half in the scrums,” former England frontrow forward Stevens said.
“We had a chat about it at half-time. They have very good scrummagers, but I am just happy we had the composure as a scrum to work that problem out.”
And Borthwick said: “One of the strengths of the group is learning from our mistakes and looking for continual improvement.
“The scrum didn’t go quite the way we wanted it to in the first half but great credit to the guys, we had a strategy to fix the problem and in the second half we had a really strong scrummaging performance.
“That is just an example of how this group learns, adapts and gets better very quickly.
“These big games, there are always those tiny little battles that need to be won. They add up. We could see our team-mates work exceptionally hard.”
Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe, meanwhile, had no complaints about the result as his team made an early Heineken exit compared with last season, when they reached the final before losing 42-14 to Leinster.
“Saracens are a very good team, too good for us today,” Anscombe said. “They deserved their victory. They stuck to their game plan and played to their strengths. I take my hat off to Saracens. They were superb defensively.
“We didn’t get the go-forward ball to be able to ask questions of them. In these one-off games you have got to throw everything at it, but we were a little conservative.”