Anscombe has no excuses after Saracens see off Ulster’s Heineken Cup challenge

Saracens’ Mark McCall claims Ulster the toughest opponent all season

Chris Ashton dives in to score Saracens’ second try in the Heineken Cup quarter-final victory at Twickenham. Photograpgh: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Chris Ashton dives in to score Saracens’ second try in the Heineken Cup quarter-final victory at Twickenham. Photograpgh: Billy Stickland/Inpho


Saracens 27 Ulster 16:Mark Anscombe expertly skirted along the fine line of finger pointing at the ineptitude of his Ulster players while admirably fronting up to reality.

This stadium simply doesn't inspire Ulster. Their exiled son, Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall claimed they were the toughest opponent the English juggernaut has rolled over all season, but that generous comment fell on deaf ears.

No excuses, Anscombe stated repeatedly late Saturday night, and that includes touch judge Leighton Hodges fluffing his lines before Saracens first try and Romain Poite's tyrannical refereeing of the breakdown.

"I think from our point of view we didn't throw everything at it," said Anscombe. "Obviously as you saw out there we didn't perform."

The next question, considering this was the season's defining game, had to be 'why not?'

Anscombe turned to some well worn facts. In fairness, it's all new to him, this being his first campaign coaching a squad that loses its best players for two sustained periods of time.

"We didn't have a lot of time together as a team. Circumstances are that we rushed guys back last week and we needed to do that and collectively when you play a team as good as this you want to have three or four games under your belt and have that luxury."

He also felt last week's punishing victory in Dublin took a heavy toll. Yet, in the next breath, he stated it was the same for Saracens.

His main annoyance was Ulster's inability to perform the basics efficiently, especially restarts, playing far too deep inside their own territory. One shocking act of crossed wires, and there were many, saw Chris Henry get in the way of a Paddy Jackson 22 drop out, handing Saracens an attacking scrum.

Also, the loss of six lineouts reflects terribly on Johann Muller and Rory Best. In stark contrast, Schalk Brits and Steve Borthwick had utter control of their 12 lineouts.

In mitigation, it is unclear when Muller tore his bicep, but it undoubtedly soured the Ulster captain's performance.

It was clear that both teams came to play a South African brand of rugby. The different was Saracens accuracy, excellent kick chase and immense defence, led by 21 tackles from Scotland captain Kelly Brown.

Ulster also added a distinct Kiwi element with most of the early running coming from big Nick Williams, John Afoa and fullback Jarred Payne.

A major worry was the sight of Luke Marshall being helped off the field with a head injury on 67 minutes, his third in as many games, dating back to the French game in Dublin on March 9th.

The recently capped centre had been playing well, even if it was his inability to recycle possession when gang tackled around half way that presented Saracens with their first major sortie into Ulster territory.

Owen Farrell immediately shifted the counter attack to the lively Chris Ashton with Poite penalising a row of white jerseys for offside.

Farrell made it 3-0.

Ulster seemed nervous, Craig Gilroy flinging an early no-look pass behind Darren Cave and into touch. Muller, usually so reliable, was then nailed by Brad Barritt and Mako Vunipola, with the latter ripping the ball clean off him.

Even Ruan Pienaar left his mojo in Belfast, off target with two early penalties. He, finally, levelled matters with a third shot at goal.

But Ulster were their own worst enemy, immediately giving up another penalty within Farrell's range, when Muller and Williams went off their feet.

Saracens were hardly flawless, a knock on by Ernst Joubert allowing the Ulster frontrow to bulldoze their scrum and Pienaar levelled matters again.

The 37,888 crowd buckled in for an epic but we had been watching a phoney war. Saracens saw the Ulster scrum and raised it with their unstoppable rolling maul.

Television Match Official Eric Gauzins took an age to declare the try for Will Fraser in the 33rd minute.

However, that score will always be mirrored in controversy as Jared Payne's pass glanced Joubert's hand before going into touch. Poite and Welsh touch judge Leighton Hodges saw it differently. Or, in fact, they saw nothing at all.

Shame, because it proved the game's point of no return.

Still, this was a perfect example of what Anscombe said about the risk of playing rugby in your own half against Saracens.

They continued to squeeze the life out of Ulster, Farrell sending the English Premiership leaders down the tunnel 10 points clear after Williams was pinged for not releasing.

Saracens continued to win most of the collisions in the second half, Williams and Muller both isolated once again on the floor with Brown, Fraser and Joubert dominating the breakdown.

Farrell made it 19-6 and despite 30 minutes remaining on the clock, it signalled the end of Ulster's quest for European glory for yet another year.

Chinks of light? Tommy Bowe made an impact, arriving into the centre for Cave, as did Stuart Olding, while Iain Henderson had a superb game eventually crossing for a late, albeit largely irrelevant try.

Before that they had to suffer the ignominy of an Ashton swan dive, the English winger's signature move coming after sloppy handling by Henderson in midfield and a missed tackle by Muller.

So many uncharacteristic mistakes.

Scoring sequence - 2 mins: O Farrell pen, 3-0; 27 mins: R Pienaar pen, 3-3; 28 mins: E Farrell pen, 6-3; 30 mins: R Pienaar pen, 6-6; 32 mins: W Fraser try, 11-6; O Farrell conv, 13-6; 36 mins: O Farrell 16-6; 48 mins: O Farrell pen, 19-6; 56 mins: R Pienaar pen, 19-9; 59 mins: O Farrell pen, 22-9; 62 mins: C Ashton try, 27-9; 78 mins: I Henderson try, 27-14; R Pienaar conv, 27-16.

SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, S Brits, M Stevens; S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves; K Brown, W Fraser, E Joubert. Replacements: N de Kock for R Wigglesworth (51 mins), R Gill for M Vunipola, M Botha for A Hargreaves (both 56 mins), J Smit for S Brits (59 mins), C Wyles for D Strettle (65 mins), J Wray for W Fraser, C Hodgson for J Tomkins (both 73 mins), P du Plessis for M Stevens (76 mins).
ULSTER: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; I Henderson, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: T Bowe for D Cave (58 mins), R Diack for N Williams (64 mins), S Olding for L Marshall (67 mins), C Black for T Court (73 mins).
Referee: R Poite (France).

Referee: R Poite (France).