Province’s lineout and set piece failures prove costly

Disappointed Ulster coach rues missed chances at crucial stage in first half

Ulster's defeat represented systemic failure, rooted far deeper then the obvious shortcomings in the set piece. The malaise that permeated one aspect of the game eventually infected the entire performance by the midpoint of the second half in this Champions Cup tie at the Allianz arena.

The Irish province coughed up 40 per cent of their throw, crucially twice in the second quarter of the first half. From the 29th to the 36th minute Ulster effectively shoved all their chips into the middle, electing to kick a 15-metre penalty to the corner. The gamble failed because of an underthrow, and another malfunction out of touch soon after cost them field possession once again.

When Paddy Jackson missed a 23-metre penalty on 32 minutes, it was to prove a watershed moment for Ulster ambition. Tighthead prop Wiehahn Herbst suffered a double ignominy, penalised at a scrum and then helped off with a foot injury.

Saracens outhalf Owen Farrell, the official man-of-the match and an excellent performer for his team in general play – he managed just five from nine place kicks – kicked to the corner, not once but twice, and from the second lineout, Saracens number eight Billy Vunipola flopped over the line.

Momentum shift

The Irish province had gone from leading 7-6 ,with the prospect of more points, to a 13-7 interval deficit. The momentum had shifted emphatically, something Saracens drove home in the second half as the visitor’s display unravelled.

Ulster coach Les Kiss admitted: "We are extremely disappointed to tell you the truth. I think that was a critical part where we just couldn't sustain the pressure up that end. We had two set pieces that went awry. It gave them a chance to get back down [to our end of the pitch] and they put points on straight away.

“It’s not good enough to sit back and let those things happen to you in the second half so we have got to do better.”

While acknowledging the fact that the set piece cost his team dearly, Kiss felt it had a disproportionate effect on other aspects of the performance.

He explained: “You can’t be completely defined by it [the set piece]. We needed to find a bit more fight in and around the game. I think we have some great fight, some great qualities; we just have to be able to work a little bit smarter when the elements of the game don’t fall your way.

“When the set piece is going well, it’s great [as] you can be on the front foot, and when we got it right, you could see the space we were creating on the edges; but when it’s not quite right you need to be a little more savvy and get the game you want out of it.

“The set piece didn’t give us a chance to get into it, but there were other times when we were just a little bit frivolous throwing things out [of play] on the sideline.”

He had a point and a fair one. Ulster started to push things, force passes, kick injudiciously, chase the miracle offload and loose discipline.

Saracens maintained their aggressive, pressure game and waited to reap the benefits. Farrell kicked them into the right places and players like Billy and Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Jamie George pummelled the visitors with punishing carries.

Impressive

Tries from Duncan Taylor, Itoje and replacement Schalk Brits wrapped up the victory, a bonus point, qualification and a home quarterfinal in double quick time. Saracens were worthy and impressive winners. Coach Mark McCall has turned them into a formidable outfit.

Ulster bookended the game with their match highlights' reel, centre Stuart McCloskey making the initial thrust before the returning Jared Payne's exquisite dab through for Luke Marshall led to the game's first try. The visitors also managed the last, when replacement Ian Humphreys intercepted; the 33-year-old's lungs and legs survived the 70-metre sprint.

McCloskey again stood out; so too Payne on his return, Alan O’Connor and the typically industrious Kyle McCall. Craig Gilroy’s footwork and leg drive in contact ekes out yards, but the collective cohesion was missing.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will clarify his squad for the upcoming Six Nations Championship on Wednesday. McCloskey deserves to be in it. He’s happy with his form and so he should be.

Ulster’s fate is under the stewardship of others to a degree, as Kiss admitted: “The truth is now we have to get five points (next Saturday against Oyonnax at the Kingspan stadium) and sit and wait for another couple of results.

“We don’t control our destiny completely, so it is not the ideal position to be in, but it is a weird competition and does something different every year.

“We didn’t look after the things we could have today so we have to do it next [Saturday] to put pressure on the rest of the competition. If we do our job, then people have to react to keep us out. It is not an ideal situation to be, in that’s for sure.

“We had minutes that were good, but we didn’t have 80 minutes. Most of their 80 minutes were pretty good and that’s a hard thing to play against. We have to take that hurt and make sure that we transition it into a reaction (against Oyonnax).”

Ulster must at least ask the question of their knockout rivals.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer

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