Arguably the Heineken Cup tie of the weekend, Saracens v Ulster will see the visitors’ travelling faithful bring the Ravenhill Roar to Twickenham to face an in-form and destructive Saracens side. Ulster’s erratic season has left them with one win in their last four Pro 12 matches but with that win stemming from an assured display against current Cup holders Leinster, are they producing momentum at just the right time? Momentum is something with which their opponents are all too familiar, having won on their last five Premiership outings including a confident performance against Harlequins; not to mention bonus point wins at home to London Welsh and away to Leicester.
If Saracens can control the break-down the way they have in recent performances, Ulster could be in for a long evening. Their ability to assess rucks quickly sees them rarely over-commit and permits their back row greater depth to explore midfield options. To this end, Ulster will need to be wary of young Will Fraser, a flanker who looks nimble and determined in the loose and certainly knows his way to the try line. With a stunning performance against Wasps, Chris Ashton seems to be recapturing the form of old; however, he will need to keep a cool head on this occasion – he can only signal his worth to Gatland if he stays on the pitch.
In defence, Saracens’ ability to flood the backline whilst maintaining competition in the tight will be a real asset against an Ulster side who relied on Leinster’s slack defence in second and third phase play to break the line. The immense work-rate of Mako Vunipola often sees him on Brad Barritt’s shoulder, hitting everything in the loose 10-12 channel.
Player to watch – Alex Goode
Goode will be instrumental in maintaining his side’s field position, as Paddy Jackson’s ability to exploit open space with the boot is becoming increasingly prevalent. Solid and composed under pressure, Goode has a penchant for slipping behind defences with a neat chip which could cause problems for an overly rigid Ulster defence. He will be looking to test Jared Payne, who has not impressed since his recent return from injury.
Last year’s beaten finalists will not have happy memories of Twickenham but will be encouraged by the return of John Afoa and Luke Marshall who bolster a squad that have already achieved more in the Pro 12 than last year’s entire campaign. It is imperative that Ulster put their stamp on the scrum early, as this is one area in which Saracens are definitely not short of fire-power. The triumvirate of Afoa, Rory Best and Tom Court will need to match force and control with pace in order to get the better of their counterparts. Ulster’s position in the league may have attenuated but, as pool opponents Northampton and Castres can testify, a resurgent Ulster is a powerful force.
Nick Williams’ commanding strikes from the back row were muted against Treviso but have been effective this season against disorganised scramble defences. However, Saracens will need to make sure they do not focus on Williams’ breakdown work in lieu of attending to wide attacks from the likes of Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble.
Player to watch – Andrew Trimble
Trimble has shown an increasing ability to exploit the 10-12 channel recently and, having demonstrated admirable composure this season, the younger members of the squad will look to him to maintain progress throughout the match. Trimble has developed hugely from the 20 year old who was brought through the ranks by Mark McCall and can be devastating, especially through the centre from second phase.
The pace of this match is set to be mighty and in such a case a squad effort is essential. Much has been made of the strength and depth of the Saracens bench to carry the team’s momentum through the last twenty minutes of many tight games. Whilst formidable, with the likes of John Smit, Alistair Hargreaves and a host of other quality players, we would do well to note the talent of Ulster’s Roger Wilson, Paul Marshall et al in producing and maintaining flair and skill when called upon.
This said, and although seemingly at full-strength, a lot of Ulster’s returning stars have not had much game time, notably Tommy Bowe, whose continued swift recovery sees him on the bench ahead of schedule. Saracens have the home advantage, have performed exceptionally recently and have mature heads in the likes of Steve Borthwick and Matt Stevens who will look to dominate from the first whistle. Saracens by 5.
by Dan Lane