Saracens gave the new England head coach, Eddie Jones, reasons for optimism as several Red Rose internationals turned in impressive performances in a crushing Champions Cup win over Ulster in Belfast.
Tries from Chris Wyles, Alex Goode, Duncan Taylor and Billy Vunipola enabled the English champions to back up their opening Pool 1 triumph over Toulouse by humbling their Irish hosts.
Ulster had led 9-0 at one stage thanks to two penalties and a drop goal from the fly-half Paddy Jackson, while the home side also played a quarter of the game a man to the good after Michael Rhodes and Billy Vunipola were sin-binned. But they were ruthlessly dismantled as Billy and brother Mako produced titanic displays, Owen Farrell bossed proceedings despite an off night from the tee and Goode exuded class in everything he did from full-back. Jones would doubtless have appreciated their efforts as Mark McCall’s men made clear their intent to add European glory to domestic success.
“It is a big statement. We are very pleased with the bonus point but even more pleased with the performance,” said the man of the match, Mako Vunipola. “That was a good Ulster side and hopefully that puts us in good stead for the rest of the campaign.
“As forwards we love days like this; it was a great team effort against a tough pack. We ground them down and we are very pleased. We were not comfortable at half-time, we knew we could improve but we came out and put a good performance in and picked up the five points.
“We enjoy the challenge of these atmospheres we are tight knit as a group, we bring energy to each other, we work hard for each other and we will always take a win like that.”
A comfortable away win had hardly looked in the offing during a tough opening in which Rhodes was fortunate not to see red for his tackle on an airborne Andrew Trimble. Ulster fans still nursing a grievance over the red card Jared Payne received for a similar challenge in the quarter-final between the sides two seasons ago, were less than impressed.
The home side, with the wind at their back, rode that sense of injustice to harry Saracens out of their stride, with Jackson’s boot doing the rest. But the game turned the moment Farrell’s bullet pass beat two defenders and allowed Goode to send Wyles in at the corner.
Saracens still trailed when Billy Vunipola was binned for a shoulder charge on Iain Henderson but, just as the going got tough, the men in black got going. Goode’s chip over a snoozing Ulster defence was seized by Taylor to send the full-back over before Farrell accelerated down the blind side to give Taylor an easy finish. A penalty from the fly-half, who missed 10 points worth of kicks, put the result beyond doubt and Billy Vunipola crowned a ruthless display by rumbling over from the final play.
“We have made it hard for ourselves,” conceded Les Kiss, Ulster’s director of rugby. “The pool is not over. We have a game in hand and we need a positive outcome from our home and away games against Toulouse. But Saracens are very well placed.”
Ulster: Ludik (Nelson, 73); Trimble, Cave, McCloskey, Gilroy; Jackson (Humphreys, 70), Pienaar (P Marshall, 75); Black (McCall, 58), Best, Herbst (Lutton, 70), Tuohy, Van der Merwe (Diack, 66), Henderson, Henry (Wilson, 49), Williams (Herring, 66).
Pens Jackson 2, Drop goal Jackson Sin-bin Best (80)
Saracens Goode; Ashton, Taylor (Bosch, 70), Barritt (Hodgson, 73), Wyles; Farrell, Wigglesworth (De Kock, 76); M Vunipola (Gill 75), Brits (George, 51), Du Plessis (Figallo, 54), Kruis, Itoje (Hargreaves, 76), Rhodes (Wray 58), Burger, B Vunipola.
Tries Wyles, Goode, Taylor, B Vunipola. Cons Farrell 2 Pen Farrell Sin-bin: Rhodes (4), B Vunipola (55)
Referee R Poite (Fr)