Ulster reignite Champions Cup ambitions with thrilling bonus point victory over Clermont in epic encounter
Ulster 39 Clermont Auvergne 32
In a game that will have angered defence coaches and enthralled spectators in equal measure, Ulster breathed new and unexpected life into their Champions Cup campaign with a 39-32, bonus-point victory over Clermont in Ravenhill yesterday afternoon.
Nine tries were shared, with the hosts edging the count five to four, but even in defeat the Top 14 leaders banked two valuable bonus points from the high-scoring affair.
Ulster seemed sure of victory when their fifth and final score brought their tally just one shy of the 40-point barrier, but a final quarter flourish from the French left finger nails bitten throughout the east of Belfast.
Indeed, after English referee Wayne Barnes penalised Ulster just 18 seconds short of the 80, Franck Azema's men ended the game with the ball and in search of the most unlikely of draws.
Seven first-half lead changes spoke volumes as, in a game lacking structure, but providing plenty of excitement, Ulster produced tries of real quality only to spark panic whenever the Top 14 league leaders had the ball.
With Joe Schmidt on hand to watch his former club and a handful of his current charges, his old assistant Les Kiss was relieved to have captain Rory Best back in harness, deployed together with Chris Henry and Iain Henderson in the same pack for the first time since last season's PRO12 semi-final defeat to Leinster.
The restored internationals could do nothing to stop Clermont's lightening fast start.
After Ulster's restart problems, part of their undoing against Bordeaux in round one, reared their head again there were just 67 seconds on the clock when Peceili Yato opened the scoring.
The response was not long in coming, Luke Marshall running the first of a series of fine lines off Paddy Jackson's shoulder to score with five minutes elapsed.
A penalty from Morgan Parra nudged Clermont back in front, but Ulster crucially secured the game's next try when, with a penalty advantage in his back pocket, Ruan Pienaar hoisted the ball in the air for Tommy Bowe to contest.
The Monaghan man leapt to claim over English expats David Strettle and Nick Abendanon, popping the ball up from the deck for man-of-the match Iain Henderson to score.
Parra and Jackson traded efforts of the tee before the lead changed hands yet again.
With Robbie Diack included in Ulster's second-row for increased mobility, it was in the set-piece where the host's malfunctions produced an opening.
The South African-born, Irish-capped forward could not claim the line-out on half-way and, after yet another Wesley Fofana slice through the underbelly, the hosts were handed a reprieve by a knock-on.
At the base of the scrum however, where Sean Reidy was used as an 8 rather than his more familiar flanker role, the Kiwi was quickly sacked and turned over.
The pass from Remi Lamerat was exquisite to put Scott Spedding away but Ulster will have rued their own role in the score.
In a half committed to pattern if nothing else, Ulster would strike back once more before the turn, Paddy Jackson showing a pair of deft touches with the boot to freeze Fofana, gather, and score.
In relative terms, the second 40 was a tighter affair, with Ulster seemingly wresting control of the contest with two quick scores.
Lines against the grain from both Ulster centres saw Marshall over for his second just five minutes into the half and Ulster went for broke soon after.
With the foot nearing the throat, Best, back in his role as captain with Andrew Trimble out, boldly went for the corner when a penalty would have created a gap of two-converted tries, but was rewarded by Piutau’s score and Ulster's fifth.
They would not score again however and, what at first seemed a chase for bonus-points, had Clermont on the brink of snatching a draw.
Scores from Yato and Abendanon had them within seven but, much to the relief of Rodney Ah You after his late yellow card, Ulster held on for a victory that has them trailing the pool leaders by just three points at the half-way stage.
Next week's rematch in the Stade Marcel Michelin seems nicely poised indeed.