Saracens produced a second-half comeback to remember as they hammered Ulster 27-9 at Ravenhill in the Champions Cup.
Saracens cemented their position at the top of Pool 1 with an authoritative and classy win.
Tries from Chris Wyles, Alex Goode, Duncan Taylor and Billy Vunipola gave the Premiership champions a bonus point win as they proved much too strong for a willing but limited Ulster.
The home side started better and built up a patient half-time lead through the boot of Irish fly-half Paddy Jackson. It wasn’t enough, though, as Sarries blew the Irishmen away in the second half with a fine exhibition of clinical, running rugby that defied the awful conditions.
The visitors were so efficient that their barnstorming effort withstood an average kicking performance off the tee from fly-half Owen Farrell, who looked uncharacteristically edgy. All in all, this was a superb win for the Englishmen and they are undoubtedly favourites to top the pool.
Ulster started brighter, bombarding Sarries winger Chris Wyles with early bombs. The big early talking point, though, was flanker Michael Rhodes’ careless tackle on Irish winger Andrew Trimble. Ironically enough, the challenge was virtually identical to that perpetrated by Jared Payne in the 2014 quarter-final, which resulted in the Ulster full-back being red carded.
The home crowd bellowed for a similar outcome this time, but Romain Poite decided to send the blindside to the sin-bin following consultation with the TMO. Pienaar went on to miss the resultant penalty.
Farrell had a great chance to bag the first points for Sarries on 10 minutes, but his penalty fell well short. The Irish side had a good spell of possession thereafter, and were rewarded on 14 minutes when Jackson landed a penalty in front of the posts. It got even better for the hosts on 20 minutes when Jackson doubled the lead with a sweetly struck drop goal, having dropped deep into the pocket with Poite playing advantage.
Saracens for their part were defending very aggressively, but were suffering badly due to indiscipline. Jackson was happy to make the Englishmen pay, and coolly kicked his side into a 9-0 lead on 25 minutes when Jacques Burger was penalised for tackling without wrapping his arms.
The Londoners needed to hit back, and they did on 29 minutes with Ulster short on numbers in defence, winger Wyles got over in the corner. Farrell missed the conversion, though, to leave it 9-5 to the hosts. The English fly-half’s jitters continued on 38 minutes when he missed a penalty that would have brought the Premiership champions within a point. The teams went in at half-time with the Irishmen ahead, but Saracens gaining momentum.
The game remained tight at the start of the second half. Ulster’s effort wasn’t helped when openside Chris Henry limped off early on, to be replaced temporarily by Roger Wilson. By this point, Sarries were injecting much more width into the game, with Richard Wigglesworth expertly pulling the strings. But their discipline continued to let them down, as seen when Billy Vunipola was sent to the bin for a dangerous tackle on Iain Henderson.
An excellent chip by Alex Goode then found Duncan Taylor on the right wing, and the Saracens centre did brilliantly to offload to the supporting Goode to score a special try. Farrell converted this time to give Sarries a 12-9 lead.
The visitors were now playing all the rugby and their back play was extremely fluent in the poor conditions. The visitors’ class was seen in the next try on 65 minutes. Farrell, sat in the pocket, dummied and then slipped through numerous tackles before releasing Taylor for the away side's third try.
A raft of substitutions ensued, as Ulster chased the game and conditions deteriorated. Farrell compounded the Irishmen’s misery on 73 minutes when he nailed another penalty following an almighty shove from his front row.
There was no way back for a weary Ulster, who were all out of ideas. Fittingly the English giants had the final say as Billy Vunipola steamrolled a 14-man Ulster to touch down at the death for what could prove to be a crucial bonus point.
Pens: Jackson 2
Drop Goal: Jackson
Tries: Wyles, Goode, Taylor, B Vunipola
Cons: Farrell, Hodgson
Yellow Cards: Rhodes, B Vunipola
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Dan Tuohy, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Callum Black
Replacements: 16 Kyle McCall, 17 Rob Herring, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Roger Wilson, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Peter Nelson
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 George Kruis, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil De Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Marcelo Bosch
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Cyril Lafon (France), Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)