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Ulster survive nervy climax to beat Clermont and make it 4 from 4

Five tries at Kingspan Stadium and a thoroughly dominant display for 70 minutes proved enough for the Irish side.

Ulster's Robert Baloucoune scores a try.
Ulster's Robert Baloucoune scores a try.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ulster 34

Clermont 31

Adam McKendry reports from Kingspan Stadium

ULSTER MAY YET be rewarded for finishing second in Pool A of the Heineken Champions Cup with European champions Toulouse but, if that is to be the case, they will likely hold no fear after knocking off another French giant in Clermont Auvergne twice in the pool stages.

Five tries at Kingspan Stadium and a thoroughly dominant display for 70 minutes — more on the other 10 a little later — represents just how much this Ulster side are relishing the European battle as they toyed with Jono Gibbes’ men, tearing them apart piece by piece in all facets of the game.

Rob Herring’s maul double reflected their set-piece superiority, while Mike Lowry continued to pick those cutting lines, which led to a third try in two games. There was even a first try in an Ulster jersey for Duane Vermeulen and another for winger Robert Baloucoune for good measure.

But as much as the first 70 minutes should be lauded, the final 10 should be cause for concern as it was nearly a memorable game for all the wrong reasons.

Seemingly cruising to victory by a comfortable margin, Ulster seemed to ease their foot completely off the gas pedal and allowed all three of Jacobus van Tonder, Alivereti Raka and Judicael Cancoriet to cross, making it a three-point game and setting up a much nervier finish than it perhaps should have been.

Still, by that stage, the job was effectively done and the likes of Vermeulen and Herring had been withdrawn, as had the excellent Billy Burns, and at the end of the day all that head coach Dan McFarland will be concerned about is wrapping up second place.

Certainly, if they perform as they did for the majority of the game then they will be a handful for any side. Once again Lowry was immense, as was the player of the match James Hume who continues to further his appeals for Six Nations action, and they will know there is a target on their backs as the only side in Pool A to win all four games this campaign.

By their own standards, Ulster were slow off the mark on this occasion. While it took them just six minutes to open the scoring at Franklin’s Gardens a week prior, the Kingspan Stadium faithful would be forced to wait an extra minute for their side to cross the whitewash.

It was Herring’s first try that got them off the mark, the hooker breaking off the back of a maul that was slowly rumbling towards the line and forcing his way through a double tackle and over in the corner.

What the first half did not lack in scores, it did in discipline. By the time the half-time whistle sounded the penalty count would read 8-5 in favour of the visitors — the only issue for Ulster was their infringements were coming in the red zone and Morgan Parra was making them pay for it.

The scrum-half struck twice to put the French side ahead shortly before the halfway point of the first half, the second of which came off a particularly eye-catching scrum drive, before Lowry continued his cult status with another brilliantly taken try.

It didn’t look like there was much on down the blindside when the ball found its way to Burns in the 22, but the fly-half shipped it on to Lowry and the full-back burned Parra for pace to set up a two-on-one with Cheikh Tiberghien at the line, with Lowry opting to go over himself with his opposite number too focused on Ethan McIlroy on his outside.

Once again, however, it was Ulster’s discipline that was keeping Clermont in it — much like it was in their other home game in the Champions Cup when they faced Northampton — and Parra swept over two more penalties to pull the visitors two points ahead just after the half-hour mark.

But the pendulum swung when Clermont themselves ran afoul of referee Luke Pearce two minutes before the break, Raka making little effort to roll away after making a tackle on the line to slow down the ball and seeing yellow, and from the resulting line-out off the penalty, Herring dived over for his second try to give Ulster a half-time lead.

After seeing his first two kicks miss, Nathan Doak saw his conversion go over and it was he who was first on the board after the restart, too, knocking over an early penalty, and it wouldn’t take long for them to get the bonus point they deserved.

It was Vermeulen who scored it, the No.8 muscling over from all of a yard after Lowry’s drive down the wing that saw him felled just shy, but it was a length of the field effort that got them there as, still with the extra man, the hosts worked their way all the way from their own 22 up to just outside the Clermont red zone.

Finally, back to their full complement, Clermont threw on their big guns in the form of Camille Lopez and Damian Penaud, but it made little difference. Ulster had the bit in their teeth and they would add one more score as Baloucoune dived over from close range thanks to a great pass from Burns for their fifth.

When some beautiful flowing play, started by Penaud on the halfway line, saw Cancoriet set Van Tonder over the line with 10 minutes remaining, the general feeling was that it was nothing more than a consolation for Clermont at the end, but nobody could predict the madness that would follow.

Tiberghien then seared through the middle of the Ulster defensive line and into the Ulster 22, which would eventually lead to Raka cantering over into the corner for their second of the evening to make things a little nervy, and then the pressure was cranked up to full when Cancoriet piloted a maul over with four minutes remaining.

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But, faced with needing to go the length of the pitch for one more try to steal possibly the greatest comeback of all time in European rugby, Clermont couldn’t manage it. Baloucoune thumped Cancoriet into touch, the hosts controlled possession for the final 75 seconds and David Shanahan rounded things off by sending the ball off the pitch to sound the final whistle.

It may be Toulouse in the last-16, or it may yet be someone else. But one thing is for sure: Ulster will fancy their chances against any of them.

The scorers

For Ulster
Tries: Herring (2), Lowry, Vermeulen, Baloucoune
Cons: Doak (2), Burns
Pen: Doak

For Clermont
Tries: Van Tonder, Raka, Cancoriet
Cons: Lopez (2)
Pens: Parra (4)

ULSTER
(15-9) Mike Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Angus Curtis (Ben Moxham 60), Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns (Craig Gilroy 68), Nathan Doak (David Shanahan 65); (1-8) Eric O’Sullivan (Jack McGrath 68), Rob Herring (Brad Roberts 74), Marty Moore (Tom O’Toole 55); Alan O’Connor (Sam Carter 63), Kieran Treadwell; Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen (Greg Jones 55).

CLERMONT
(15-9) Cheikh Tiberghien; Marvin O’Connor, Jean-Pascal Barraque, Tani Vili (Damian Penaud 52), Alivereti Raka; JJ Hanrahan (Camille Lopez 58), Morgan Parra (Kevin Viallard 68); (1-8) Etienne Falgoux (Daniel Bibi Biziwu 58), Yohan Beheregaray (Etienne Fourcade 58), Rabah Slimani (Cristian Ojovan 29); Paul Jedrasiak, Tomas Lavanini (Sebastien Vahaamahina 55); Judicael Cancoriet, Lucas Dessaigne (Fritz Lee 76), Jacobus van Tonder.
Yellow card: Alivereti Raka (38′)

Man of the Match: James Hume (Ulster)
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)

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