That the home side deservedly conjured a victory, and a priceless bonus point in scoring five tries, thrilled a capacity Kingspan crowd which was left in no doubt as to why Clermont currently dominate the French club game.
Clermont’s four-try haul meant a bonus point, as did a late surge which reduced the deficit to just seven points, so after maximum points from their two previous Pool 5 outings they remain in control of the group as the teams prepare for the return fixture in the French Alps on Sunday.
“We had to be smart in the closing 20 minutes,” said Ulster head coach Neil Doak. “Clermont got some momentum after we got a 39-18 lead. They are a dangerous side from any part of the pitch with world-class players and we conceded two converted tries and they might have easily turned the game on its head.
“But our big players stood up, we were down to 14 men but kept the ball, ran down the clock and got what was our best win, and performance, of the season. Now we have to go to France and do it all again, and we know that we are very much alive in the competition.”
Yet it all started so ominously. In the first minute Ulster failed to gather the kick-off, Clermont forced a lineout in the corner, Nick Abendanon saw a gap, the thunderous Pecell Yato scored at the posts, Morgan Parra making it 7-0.
Though Parra, Camille Lopez and the sublime Wesley Fofana threatened even more damage Ulster came up with a magnificent seventh-minute response, scrum-half Ruan Pienaar the conductor, Paddy Jackson the calm conduit as Luke Marshall’s sharp line saw him crash in at the posts, Jackson swiftly levelling the game.
Three minutes later, Clermont went ahead after camping on the home line, the Ulster defence conceded the penalty, Parra obliged.
In the 16th minute Pienaar reminded us of just what we’ll miss when he is forced out of Irish rugby in the summer.
From a ruck on the left he spotted Tommy Bowe way out right: The kick was pinpoint, Bowe soared, and as he tumbled to earth the Lions wing off-loaded brilliantly to man-of-the match Ian Henderson who touched down for 12-10 lead. Jackson’s penalty in the 22nd minute increased the lead, a rather prosaic score in a match full of pace, thunderous tackling and adventure.
Fofana’s brilliant intervention drew a penalty for Parra to reduce the deficit to 15-13 in the 27th minute, then four minutes later Lopez brilliantly created the chance for full-back Scott Spedding to squeeze over on the right as the French regained the lead at 18-15.
But an Ulster team superbly led by Rory Best sped upfield, Pienaar was obstructed but Jackson flatfooted the visiting defence with a grubber kick, gathered cleanly to score and his conversion made it 22-18 at the break.
Five minutes into the second half Jackson’s huge kick won position near the Clermont line, and eventually it was Pienaar who combined with an inspired Marshall who crashed over for his second converted try and a 29-18 lead and a bonus point. Then Charles Piutau’s astonishing 54th minute arcing run and side-step had the crowd on its feet, Jackson’s conversion making it an almost incredible 36-18 lead.
That became 39-18 when for once Best asked Jackson to use the tee from 44 yards and the Irish out-half split the posts.
The Clermont response was inevitable, and a clever 63rd minute switch saw Lopez send Abendanon over, Parra converting, and 10 minutes later the all-action skipper Damien Chouly went over from a forward drive for his team’s fourth try, Parra adding the extras and the scoreline was now 39-32, the French determined to get the win, aided by Rodney Ah You’s yellow card after a torrid 15 minutes as a front-row replacement.
Now Pienaar took the game by the scruff of the neck, kept the ball close, always in Ulster hands for a nailbiting five minutes and more, before Piutau, exhausted like all his team-mates, launched the ball high into the stands in the 83rd minute.
To ask for a repeat in terms of rugby excellence — and from Ulster’s perspective another win — in France on Sunday appears greedy!
C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey (Cave, 68), L Ludik; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall (Warwick, 56), R Best (Herring, 77), W Herbst (Ah You, 61); P Browne, R Diack (Treadwell, 41); I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy (Ross, 74).
S Spedding; D Strettle Raka, 18), R Lamerat (Stanley, 67), W Fofana, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; D Zirakashvili (Ric, 77), B Kayser (Behergaray, 9), R Chaume (Falgoux, 47); F van der Merwe, S Vahaamahina (Timani, 64); D Chouly, A Lapandry, P Yato (Gerondeau, 56).
Wayne Barnes (Eng)