When their Kiwi full-back Jared Payne was — to many, unjustly — red-carded by French referee Jerome Garces before some people had even taken their seats, after colliding with his high-flying opposite number Andy Goode, many thought it was game over. But Ulster had belief in their ability in spades and showcased it before bowing out after a rip-roaring finale.
Garces had plenty of time to review the Payne incident as he repeatedly watched it on the big screen while Goode received treatment. The Saracens full-back was subsequently carried off on a stretcher after falling awkwardly on his neck. Thankfully, he was up and walking around immediately after the game with no ill-effects.
But it was one of those refereeing decisions that one could argue until the proverbial cows come home. Yes, Goode was in the air when Payne, who was tracking the ball and looking skyward, crashed into his opposite number. Most felt a yellow card for being reckless would have been the correct call. Plus, if Goode, stayed on the park, no red would have been produced, but a lesser hue of a primary colour.
Mind you, that didn’t deter Ulster from producing a Herculean effort for the remainder of the game and, in all honesty, they could have nicked it at the end after five minutes of pummelling a Sarries defence which remained steadfast and disciplined.
It’s is all the more credit to Ulster for just having a two-point deficit at the end when you consider other bad luck befell them in that opening quarter. First, Ruan Pienaar was hampered by a recurrence of a shoulder injury as early as the 10th minute before he finally departed shortly after half-time, and then Ulster lost inspirational leader Rory Best two minutes later with an ankle injury while number eight Nick Williams twisted his ankle and was notably off the pace.
But despite all that, Ulster produced one of the gutsiest European performances. Following that opening stanza, they managed to hold a 9-5 advantage through three Pienaar penalties to a try from sky-diver Chris Ashton.
You have to give credit to Saracens for the way they perfectly executed that try against a seven-man Ulster scrum. With the normal open-side flanker Chris Henry operating in a defensive fly-half role, they tweaked the scrum right which left a gap for replacement Hodgson to feed Ashton on an inside burst and the England winger sprinted away into the corner after rounding temporary wing Luke Marshall.
Saracens still needed an early score in the second half to justify their numerical advantage. They wore down the Ulster defence before the ball reached lock Mouritz Botha who scored after lurking out on the right touchline. Ten minutes later Ashton took his second try after Owen Farrell, who had a nightmare game, hit a cross-field kick which landed perfectly for the winger out wide. Farrell’s touchline conversion, his only success from five kicks, was the difference in the end.
When it went over, you expected Saracens to pull away, but Ulster were not dead and buried just yet. They harassed and got into Sarries faces with fury. Jackson had taken over the kicking duties from the now-departed Pienaar and he rattled over two long-range penalties in the final 10 minutes to make it a two-point game.
But despite that late magnificent effort, as Ulster went through 15 phases in an effort to snatch victory, it will be a much-relived and chastened Saracens side that will face French big guns Clermont at Twickenham on April 26 for a chance to make their first Heineken Cup final.
ULSTER: J Payne; A Trimble (Gilroy, 64), D Cave, L Marshall, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar (Marshall, 49); T Court, R Best (Herring. 12), J Afoa; J Muller (capt) (Diack, 68), D Tuohy (Henderson, 60); R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams (Ferris, 55).
SARACENS: A Goode (Wyles, 5); C Ashton, D Taylor (Hodgson, 10), B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (de Kock, 69); M Vunipola (Stevens, 48), S Brits, J Johnston; S Borthwick (capt), M Botha; B Vunipola (Barrington, 73), J Burger, E Joubert (Brown, 54).
Referee: J Garces (France).
Red card: Payne (4).