Full of pride for their display against one of the continent’s richest clubs but he refused to hide the devastation of coming close to a sensational success at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
With a quarter-final place already assured thanks to Connacht’s hard-fought victory over Harlequins on Friday night, Ulster still produced the goods to back up the 40-point mauling of Leicester.
Only a solitary try from replacement hooker Ti’i Paulo and an impeccable kicking display from Morgan Parra prevented Ulster securing a first competitive win on French soil.
“We came here with high hopes and full of confidence and I’m very proud of what this Ulster squad did on the day,” said McLaughlin.
“We wanted to show that we’re proper contenders in this competition, that we can be talked about in the same breath as Leinster, Munster and Toulouse, and I felt we did that.
“We came so close. We came here wanting to get a home quarter-final for our fans and that’s why we’re exceptionally disappointed.”
Ulster led twice in the second half but chances went begging in the opening 40 minutes.
A well-worked overlap wasn’t utilised fully as Ian Humphreys’ cut-out pass didn’t quite hit Andrew Trimble in his stride, while Craig Gilroy’s race to the line was halted by the fingertips of Lionel Faure. Throw in an early Trimble knock-on and a brace of missed penalties from Ruan Pienaar and it shows Ulster would have been good value for a famous win.
“When you’re playing in a brilliant competition like this, you just can’t afford to do that. You’ve got to take every opportunity that comes your way,” said McLaughlin.
“We finished the game on the attack, going for a try, but then lost the last lineout. You’ve got to be ruthless and that’s something we’ll have to learn.”
After weathering the early storm in one of the most hostile atmospheres in world rugby, Ulster found themselves down to 14 men as a result of a moment of madness from Dan Tuohy. The in-form second row dumped Parra on his backside right under the nose of referee Dave Pearson as the Clermont scrum-half looked to take a quick tap.
But they took the setback in their stride and were only a single penalty behind at 6-3 when Tuohy returned.
Victory was still there for the taking until Paulo’s fatal blow and even then Ulster could have won it at the death had Rory Best’s throw in at a close-range lineout hit home.
Scorers for Clermont Auvergne: Try: Paulo. Con: Parra. Pens: Parra (4).
Scorers for Ulster: Pens: Pienaar (5).
Yellow card: Tuohy (13).
CLERMONT AUVERGNE: L Byrne, S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, J Malzieu, D Skrela, M Parra; L Faure, B Kayser, C Ric, J Pierre, N Hines, G Vosloo, J Bardy, J Bonnaire.
Replacements B James for Skrela (46), V Debaty for Faure (46), T Paulo for Kayser (52), A Lapandry for Bardy (56), D Kotze for Ric (64), J Cudmore for Pierre (67), R King for Byrne (70).
ULSTER: S Terblanche, A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, C Gilroy, I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg.
Replacements: P Marshall for Humphreys (61), W Faloon for Wannenburg (74).
Referee: Dave Pearson.