Ulster took yet another big French rugby scalp with a superbly disciplined 18-13 Champ[ions Cup win over Clermont Auvergne at Kingspan Stadium last night.
Scrum-half John Cooney scored two tries in 13-point haul, while Jordi Murphy touched down as Ulster’s forwards fashioned another famous victory in Belfast.
But this was a victory for organisation and accuracy, the massive French pack reduced to only intermittent periods of dominance.
Ulster’s pack started confidently, urged on by a packed Kingspan crowd, and after a Marcel Coetzee drive Clermont flanker Pecili Yato was offside, John Cooney kicked the home side into a third-minute 3-0 lead.
Four minutes later wondrous gathering and handling by Billy Burns and Stuart McCloskey sent Cooney swerving towards the posts, but he slipped 5m from the line and the French survived.
Winger Alivereti Raka was just denied a try by an awkward bounce, but in the 17th minute the barnstorming home pack drove the French heavyweights back, Jordi Murphy claiming the touchdown, Cooney adding the extras for a deserved 10-0 lead.
In the 22nd minute the sprinting Raka knocked-on to keep the home line secure, then instantly Jacob Stockdale fielded Burns’ diagonal kick and centre Luke Marshall was hauled down just short on the left.
A hugely physical and entertaining contest saw lock Paul Jedrasiak limp off on the half-hour, just as Greig Laidlaw opened Clermont’s account with a 40m penalty.
Ulster’s surprising success at scrummage time saw Cooney given a 37th-minute penalty opportunity he did not spurn, and the vaunted but error-prone French outfit went in at half-time 13-3 down.
Clermont showed some real intent on the restart, the excellent Louis Ludik, Will Addison, and Stuart McCloskey called into prominent defensive action, prompting the visitors to replace their entire front row and bring Camille Lopez in at out-half after 46 minutes.
Laidlaw was awry with a 55th-minute penalty after a rare Ulster misdemeanour, but the Scot made amends six minutes later with a simple penalty.
Two minutes later Ulster responded in spectacular fashion. Stuart McCloskey was the instigator in midfield, and Cooney won the kick-and-chase to touch down on the right for an unconverted try but an unlikely 18-6 lead.
A try-saving Ludik tackle coincided with Burns limping out of the action, and by now the French had laid siege to the home line. As the rain swept across the stadium, Clermont squeezed the energy out of Ulster’s pack in a series of scrums before referee JP Doyle awarded a penalty try and the deficit was cut to 18-13.
But Ulster dominated the closing minutes with some innovative attacks and sterling defence, and a raucous crowd roared its approval at the final whistle.
ULSTER: W Addison; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns (Johnston, 68|), J Cooney; E O’Sullivan (McCall, 66), R Herring, M Moore 9O’Toole, 66); A O’Connor (Treadwell, 57), I Henderson (capt); S Reidy (Timoney, 61), M Coetzee, J Murphy.
Replacements: A McBurney, K McCall, T O’Toole, K Treadwell, N Timoney, D Shanahan, B Johnston, C Gilroy.
ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: N Abendanon (Naqalevu, 46); P Betham, I Toeava. G Moala, A Raka; J McIntyre (Lopez, 46), G Laidlaw (Parra, 63); E Falgoux (Uhlia, 46), J Ulugia (Tadger,), R Slimani (Zirakashavili, 46); P Jedrasiak (Lanen, 30), S Timani; P Yato, F Lee (capt), A Iturria.
Replacements: M Tadjer, L Uhila, D Zirakashvili, T Lanen, L Dessaigne, M Parra, C Lopez, A Naqalevu.
Referee: JP Doyle (Eng)