ULSTER 15 SARACENS 17
Sararcens needed a huge defensive display in the closing minutes to secure back-to-back semi-final Heineken Cup appearances with this narrow victory in Belfast on Saturday night.
The English Premiership side put a dampner on what should have been a memorable night for Ulster Rugby as the redeveloped Ravenhill hosted its first game in front of a new record crowd of just over 17,000.
Ulster went from favourites to underdogs in a matter of four minutes from the kick-off after Jared Payne was deemed to have taken Alex Goode out in the air as they both went for a high ball.
It was at least a yellow card but French official, Jeromes Garces decided it was a straight red and Payne was sent off.
Remarkably Ulster went in at the break leading 9-5 after Ruan Pienaar kicked three from five penalties.
But it looked as if the resilience of the Ulster side had finally been broken after 69 minutes when winger, Chris Ashton added to his first half by crossing for his second and Saracens third – Mouritz Botha had scored three minutes into the second half.
Trailing 17-9 Ulster rallied and two long range penalties from outhalf Paddy Jackson ensured a grandstand dramatic finish.
Chris Wyles replaced the injured Goode and soon after Charlie Hodgson came on for the injured Duncan Taylor and then Ulster lost Best to a right ankle injury with Rob Herring coming in – all this in just the first 12 minutes, during which Pienaar also kicked a penalty to open the scoring.
Up against it Ulster rallied with Nick Williams, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe making big inroads against a Saracens team who seemingly did not want, or know, now to spread a ball wide.
A Saracens scrum had Ulster back pedalling, Hodgson and Ashton interchanged and the winger raced in for a try, Farrell unable to convert from the touchline but the visitors had a 5-3 lead after 22 minutes.
Sararies went wide to the left on the next furray, but Wyles and Strettle mixed up their interchange and Bowe gathered off the ground, kicked ahead and hounded Schalk Brits into touch. The lineout and driving maul resulting, Pienaar kicked a penalty to make it 6-5 and then missed a long range effort after the home side had soaked up a mountain of pressure.
But the South African landed one from near the touchline to make it 9-5 at the interval against the odds.
Ulster made a solid start to the second half before a huge clearance kick from Farrell had them back in their own ‘22’, scrappily defending their lineout and Billy Vunipola dropped a Peinaar clearance.
Sarries came in a wave of attacks though, moving ball left and right, Ulster scrambling to cover and lock Martinz Botha had the simple task of stepping over the line as the numbers finally told on the home side and it was 9-10. Farrell maintined his kicking rate of zero with the conversion effort as Peinaar retired and made way for Paul Marshall.
Paddy Jackson missed a penalty on 54 minutes and then Ravenhill erupted as Stephen Ferris came on for Williams.
Farrell missed another penalty but Saracens came in droves again but were held up on the line by some immense Ulster defence during which Trimble suffered two ijuries and was replaced by Gilroy after 64 minutes.
Farrell’s vision and skill picked out Ashton on the wing with a crossfield kick, the latter going in for his second try.
It looked as if Ulster were down and out, but they rallied once again and it was 17-12 when Jackson landed two long range penalties but the visitors defended superbly as Ulster threw everything at them in the final minute but were denied a dramatic last gasp opportunity to snatch a victory.
Ulster Rugby: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Tommy Bowe; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller (c), Dan Tuohy, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams Replacements: Rob Herring (Best 12), Andrew Warwick, Ricky Lutton, Iain Henderson (59), Stephen Ferris (Williams 54), Robbie Diack, Paul Marshall (Pienaar 48), Craig Gilroy (Trimble 64)
Saracens: Alex Goode Chris Ashton, Duncan Taylor (, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, James Johnston, Steve Borthwick (c), Mouritz Botha, Billy Vunipola, Jacques Burger, Ernst Joubert
Replacements: Jamie George, Richard Barrington, Matt Stevens (Johnston 47), Eoin Sheriff, Kelly Brown, Neil de Kock, Charlie Hodgson (Taylor 10), Chris Wyles (Goode 4).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France),