Match Preview: Saracens vs. Ulster Rugby

Jared Payne

Jared Payne returns from injury at full-back

You hear the old cliché that sport can be a game of two halves. If our game last week wasn’t a perfect example of that then I don’t know what is!

Perhaps it is better that the first half be consigned to the history books and never spoken of again. There will have been a very painful video review for the players to do earlier in the week and there will have been a bit of soul-searching done too. But that second half performance was top drawer – not too many teams are able to reverse a 23 point half time deficit and the confidence boost that will award us will stand us in very good stead going into this week.

Because we badly need one against a team that we haven’t beaten since 2005. And when that side has only lost one competitive match all season, it makes our game tomorrow all that more difficult. Yes, Saracens have without a doubt been the form team in Europe this season having only been on the wrong end of the scoreline one time this year, and they will be determined to right that this weekend.

Harlequins’ triumph last weekend proved how much of an effort is required to take points off Saracens though because it required nearly everything to go right for them to win. Not only did Saracens have Rhys Gill red carded early on but Harlequins also needed a late try to grab all four points. Such are the problems Saracens pose that even with an extra man Quins were still struggling to put them away towards the end of the game.

BUT, it proves they can be beaten.

Armed with a better knowledge of how to play rugby on a plastic pitch (one positive to be drawn from last week’s game), something which the coaches have openly admitted was something the team struggled with a little, we head over to Barnet with perhaps a little bit more belief than before that we might just snatch a win that condemns Saracens to only their second loss of the season.

One thing is for certain: we are in a much better position to play Saracens than we were back in November when, although we put up a good resistance for 55 minutes, in the end we were soundly beaten by a physically superior and resolute Saracens team who choked us and then turned the screw in those last few minutes. From our perspective it was painful to watch, but at the same time you did have to applaud their professional approach.

We came into that match with very little game time together as a starting XV and it told. Saracens benefitted from having their English players back earlier and as such they looked a lot more fluid. This week we don’t have that excuse and we have a settled squad – we have no excuses unlike last time. Saracens away will probably pose the toughest task we will face all season, but with the squad fully aware of how difficult it will be I cannot imagine our mindset will be wrong.

Because it is clear they have threats here, there and everywhere. It would take too long to list all of their threats by name, but put simply there are no less than eight England internationals in their starting line-up which reflects how strong they are, while their renowned “Wolfpack” defence will be on full alert at home against our potent backs. By contrast, our defence will also have to be on point against a team that has averaged 39 points per game in Europe so far this season.

We pulled victory from the jaws of defeat last week and made sure that our work against Toulouse did not go in vain, now we have to continue that on this week by picking something up from this game that will put us one step closer to the quarter-finals – a bonus point combined with a bonus point next week against Oyonnax would probably be enough.

A win tomorrow and that would definitely be enough.

The stats

Saracens come into this game having won their opening four pool games, however they have never won five games in a row in Europe nor have they ever gone six from six in the European pool stages. But they will be confident they can snap that streak having won 11 of their last 12 home games in Europe. Both teams come into this match having won their last three European games in a row.

In our previous seven meetings the English side have been victorious on six of those occasions and us only once back in 2005. In all previous clashes between the two teams Saracens have scored 175 points whereas we have mustered only 107, while our last three meetings in England have seen us concede exactly 100 points while scoring just 51 ourselves.

We are the top tacklers in the Champions’ Cup this season having amassed a whopping 552 tackles in just four games with second row Franco van der Merwe making 47 of those, the most in our team. Even though they have one of the best defences in Europe, Saracens have also proven they can do the business at the other end too as they are the competition’s top scorers with 159 points scored in their four outings, an average of just over 39 points a game.

The teams

Six alterations for Mark McCall’s Saracens from last weekend’s defeat to Harlequins. In the back three Ben Ransom and Chris Wyles are introduced in place of the injured Alex Goode and Mike Ellery while there is a return to the centre for Brad Barritt with Duncan Taylor named on the bench. Richard Wigglesworth is also recalled at scrum-half ahead of Neil de Kock. In the pack there are two changes with Maro Itoje replacing Jim Hamilton in the second row and Michael Rhodes preferred to Jackson Wray at blindside flanker.

Seven changes for Ulster from the game against Oyonnax last week which features the return of Jared Payne at the unfamiliar position of full back! Craig Gilroy switches to the wing in place of Rory Scholes and he is joined by Andrew Trimble who replaces the injured Sammy Arnold. The half backs also change with Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson returning to the starting line-up in place of Paul Marshall and Ian Humphreys respectively. Wiehahn Herbst has recovered from injury to start at tighthead prop in place of Ricky Lutton while in the second row Alan O’Connor’s concussion has cleared so he takes the place of Lewis Stevenson. Chris Henry is unavailable in the back row so he is replaced by Sean Reidy at openside flanker.


Saracens vs. Ulster Rugby

Saturday 16th January, 15:15

Allianz Park

European Rugby Champions’ Cup – Round 5


Live on BT Sport Europe



15. Ben Ransom, 14. Chris Ashton, 13. Marcelo Bosch, 12. Brad Barritt (capt.), 11. Chris Wyles, 10. Owen Farrell, 9. Richard Wigglesworth; 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Jamie George, 3. Petrus du Plessis, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. George Kruis, 6. Michael Rhodes, 7. Will Fraser, 8. Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: 16. Schalk Brits, 17. Richard Barrington, 18. Juan Figallo, 19. Jim Hamilton, 20. Jackson Wray, 21. Neil de Kock, 22. Charlie Hodgson, 23. Duncan Taylor.


15. Jared Payne, 14. Andrew Trimble, 13. Luke Marshall, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Craig Gilroy, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Kyle McCall, 2. Rory Best (capt.), 3. Wiehahn Herbst, 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Robbie Diack, 7. Sean Reidy, 8. Roger Wilson.

Replacements: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Callum Black, 18. Ricky Lutton, 19. Lewis Stevenson, 20. Clive Ross, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Ian Humphreys, 23. Rory Scholes.


Referee: Jerome Garces (FFR)

Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal, Mathieu Noirot (both FFR)

TMO: Gilles Cogne (FFR)