Thanks to a piece of individual brilliance by replacement full-back Adam D’Arcy, Ulster made it nine straight European wins at Ravenhill, leaving visitors Clermont Auvergne kicking themselves at the thought of one that got away.
Trailing 11-9 with 10 minutes left, D’Arcy, who had come on for a dazed Simon Danielli, took off on a mazy run from deep inside his own half and just before he was flattened by Clermont captain Aurelien Rougerie, he slipped a pass to his fly-half Ian Humphreys, who skipped joyfully over the line at the corner. Humphreys converted from wide out — game over.
But in the end it left McLaughlin in a state of flux after praising his side for the way they bounced back from a very lethargic first-half performance.
“I’m done,” said McLaughlin after the post-match conference. “I’m going home. I’m totally whacked. That was a very demanding game not only for the players, but also the coaching staff.
“We were at home and we have a superb record at Ravenhill and to add a team like Clermont to that list is phenomenal for us. Yes, in the first half we made the same errors we have made earlier in the season, but we are creating opportunities.
“At half-time we sat down and were very straightforward in what we wanted to do and to be fair the players stuck to it and got the rewards they deserved. It was an unbelievable display by everyone involved.
“There was a realisation that we were well in this game. The contact situation out there was ferocious. I said earlier in the season about our lack of physicality, but you certainly could not fault it this time.
“It shows that we can do it in such a huge game. Now, we have to move on. There is no sense turning in a performance like that and letting it all go to waste. We go to Welford Road next Saturday and we must produce the same type of performance. It doesn’t get any bigger than Leicester Tigers on their own pitch,” said McLaughlin who praised D’Arcy in sparking Ulster.
“Adam is a smashing player. You only have to go back to last season in Europe, where he performed superbly. He’s a very talented rugby player and it shows that our squad is getting stronger to be able to bring him off the bench.”
While Stephen Ferris and Rory Best were equal as the top performers of the day, it was Humphreys who claimed all Ulster’s points adding three penalties to that try which heconverted from wide out.
But it was an error-strewn and very nervous Ulster that under-performed in the opening 40 minutes. Theirmistakes made a strong-looking Clermont side look good and likely to break the hoodoo that usualaccompanies French teams to Belfast.
A missed tackle on Rougerie after seven minutes allowed left wing Noa Nakaitaci dance through a flat-footed defence to score. Ulster were trying to force the pace and Humphreys and Skrela traded penalties.
Ulster scrum-half Paul Marshall recovered from a shaky openingperiod to spark Ulster into action with a tap penalty but in the end a brilliant piece of covering by Chris Henry prevented another Clermont try. Skrela and Humphreys again exchanged penalties but it was the Ulsterman’s third penalty in first-half injury time that helped give Ulster a boost going in at the break.
It was a different Ulster on the restart with Ferris leading the charges and Best buzzing all around the park while half-backs Humphreys and Marshall were busily fashioning territory.
In the end it was that D’Arcy break that set up the victory and finally silencing a large vociferous Clermont.
ULSTER: S Danielli (D’Arcy, 56); A Trimble; D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, P Marshall; T Court (McAllister, 67), R Best, J Afoa (Fitzpatrick, 67), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris (Faloon, 76), C Henry, P Wannenburg.
ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: L Byrne (King, 78); W Fofana, A Rougerie (capt), R King (Buttin, 72), N Nakaitaci; D Skrela (James, 50) M Parra (Senio, 68); L Faure (Ric, 60), B Kayser, D Zirakashvili (Kotze, 50), N Hines, J Pierre (White, 72), J Bonnaire, G Vosloo, E Vermeulen (Bardy, 64).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU).