“Whatever way you want to look at it, it’s not a great afternoon for Ulster at all.”
Former Ulster and Scotland wing Tommy Seymour did his best to sum up Ulster’s dismal European afternoon at Twickenham Stoop.
After a superb win over Racing 92 in Belfast before Christmas, which put Ulster’s European fate in their own hands, Dan McFarland’s side have conceded 95 points in two games to Toulouse and Quins to end Pool Two in fifth place.
Seymour added that statistic was “harrowing” despite the level of opposition that faced Ulster, who will now drop in to the Challenge Cup.
Tony McWhirter, who won the European Cup with Ulster in 1999, said the second-half performance was “demoralising” and Dan McFarland’s side were “rudderless” after the restart.
“They are the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde side,” he added.
“You simply cannot, with hand on heart, say what type of performance you are going to get from one week to another.”
Nick David capitalised on a quick line out to put Harlequins into an early lead but Ulster, to their credit, regrouped and were level through David McCann.
However, despite Ulster bossing territory and possession, individual mistakes allowed Louis Lynagh to score twice and put Harlequins into a commanding 21-7 lead at half-time.
The superb Danny Care spotted a gap in the opaque Ulster defence to secure the bonus point before further tries from Andre Esterhuizen, David and Will Evans moved Quins past the 40-point mark.
Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey crossed for consolation scores as Ulster chased a bonus point, but the damage was done and Racing’s convincing win over Cardiff later on Saturday condemned Ulster to the Challenge Cup.
McWhirter added that Ulster “can’t afford” to make the same “system errors” if they are to consistently take on and beat the best sides in Europe.
“Harlequins didn’t really have to work. Five or six of their scores were gifted to them,” McWhirter added.
“At this level of rugby you just can’t afford to do that. We’re not even talking 50/50s, we’re talking about things that have appeared out of nothing with people out of position or missed tackles.
“Non-negotiables, that’s what a lot of that came down to.
“There was no shape or form. There were passes being flung whenever they weren’t on. I wouldn’t say panic button, because it never really looked like we were in a position in the second half to hit the panic button.
“Harlequins are a good team but they are not going to win the competition. They are a long way from being a Toulouse.”
‘Are Ulster are a top-16 team in Europe?’
Seymour said Harlequins were in “complete control and command” and Ulster were left “chasing the game”.
Ulster will not know where they will travel in the Challenge Cup until the final round of fixtures on Sunday, but British and Irish Lion Seymour added that the second-tier of European competition may suit Ulster more than the Champions Cup.
“From an Ulster fan perspective, you are not quite sure what side is going to turn up,” he said.
“The reality for me, if you looked at that performance, would you say Ulster are one of the best 16 sides in Europe? Probably not.
“They are probably on the periphery of that, but they are not there. Do they have individuals of top-16 level quality and capability? Absolutely. But as a team and outfit right now, barring the Racing result, do you look at that and say should they be guaranteed to be part of the top 16? Probably not.
“There is going to be some quality opposition in that competition. For Ulster, where they sit right now, it probably suits them that little bit more.”
McWhirter added that Ulster “don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes” and the goal for McFarland’s side is to ensure they qualify for next season’s competition.
“The whole system in terms of your goal setting has to change,” he said.
“The goal at the start of the season, part of that was qualifying out of the group. They haven’t managed to achieve that. The next best thing is the Challenge Cup, but realistically, where Ulster are at the minute, simply making sure they qualify for next year – that has to be the tangible.
“Their league form this season has been as up and down as that performance today.
“It’s these repetitive errors week after week that are costing [Ulster], and they don’t seem to be learning from them.”