Monday 23 October 2017

D'Arcy pulls it out of the fire for Ulster

Ulster 16 Clermont 11

From somewhere they managed to pull it out of the fire. The game was entering the final 10 minutes and, although Ulster only trailed by two points, it seemed Clermont had taken the best the home side could throw at them and were about to ease themselves to a crucial victory. Except Adam D'Arcy, a 55th-minute replacement for Simon Danielli, had other ideas.

It wasn't clear what D'Arcy was going to do when he picked up possession inside his own 22. Clearing his lines might have seemed the best option but, sensing his team needed a spark urgently, D'Arcy set off on a lung-bursting dash that brought him past three Clermont defenders and into open space. And by the time he had run out of room, how relieved he must have been to see Ian Humphreys appear on his left shoulder.

The outhalf took the pass and gleefully surged to the line and all of Ravenhill, bar the sizeable French contingent, erupted in joy. Humphreys kicked the conversion and Ulster led by five. Suddenly, a game in which they had fought valiantly but had looked beyond them, lay within their grasp. For the 10 remaining minutes they fought like demons, determined not to let their unlikely advantage slip.

It was a magnificent victory. Clermont, enjoying their centenary year, are regarded as one of the firm contenders for European glory. They picked their strongest side and came to win. But Belfast is a difficult place to come for even the most vaunted of sides. In recent years Toulouse, Stade Francais and Biarritz had all been seen off here. Ulster pride themselves on their fearsome home reputation and will rejoice that it remains intact.

Early on, Clermont had looked in the mood for a big day. Much of the focus had been on their beefy pack and when they met stubborn resistance from the Ulster forwards they refused to panic. Instead, they fed as much ball as they could to David Skrela who linked dangerously with Aurelien Rougerie and impressive wings, Wesley Fofana and Noa Nakaitaci. Heaven knows what damage they might do when Sitiveni Sivivatu arrives in January.

For some reason Ulster were slow out of the blocks, diffident and uncertain. They committed the cardinal sin of not claiming the kick-off and allowed Morgan Parra a taster at goal as early as the third minute. They had a lineout on the right inside their own half soon afterwards and lost that too. It's hardly on those flimsy grounds that successful Heineken Cup campaigns are founded.

So no real surprise when they shipped an early try. The situation didn't look dangerous until Danielli completely mistimed his tackle on Rougerie and, suddenly, Clermont had plenty of space inside to exploit. Rougerie made his ground before finding Nakaitaci in support and, although the Fijian had work to do, he managed to hold off a couple of would-be tackles to touch the ball down.

At times Clermont were irrepressible. Ulster may have held their own up front but, in general terms, the French side was superior in most facets of the game, kicking better through Skrela and looking particularly dangerous from counter-attacks. Skrela and Parra both missed chances to extend their lead at various points although, at that stage, it wasn't looking like a day when they might regret such lapses.

What was odd was that Ulster hadn't brought the kind of intensity to the game you would expect as a given on their home patch. It was midway through the first half before they raised anything approaching a gallop, a quick-tap penalty by Paul Marshall leading them through multiple phases until Humphreys' pass was intercepted by Nakaitaci and Clermont launched into a menacing attack.

The first half, at least, ended on a positive note. Ulster had just gone eight points behind with the clock running down and it took a determined Andrew Trimble to wrest possession from Humphreys' restart and set up the penalty that enabled Humphreys to wipe out Skrela's 35th-minute effort. It gave Brian McLaughlin's men something to build on for the remainder of the game.

And how they managed it. The signs were there when they forced the Clermont pack into conceding a penalty early on after the interval, but Humphreys was badly wide with his penalty attempt. The outhalf could hardly miss five minutes later when another bracing Ulster attack brought a close-range penalty. Suddenly Clermont weren't weaving neat patterns anymore.

Ulster grew heart and confidence. Paddy Wallace showed his class with a daring run from his 22 that, for a moment, looked like ending with a Trimble try in the right corner. Brock James then hopelessly kicked dirt from a long-range penalty attempt and squandered another from close range. With Trimble and the magnificent Stephen Ferris roaring them on, it looked more and more like Ulster's day.

Then came D'Arcy's intervention, Humphrey's try and conversion and, suddenly for Ulster, the road to Leicester next week doesn't look all that menacing anymore.

Ulster: S Danielli (A D'Arcy 55); A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, P Marshall; T Court (P McAllister 67), R Best, J Afoa (D Fitzpatrick 67), J Muller, D Tuohy, S Ferris (W Faloon 76), C Henry, P Wannenburg

Clermont: L Byrne; W Fofana, A Rougerie, R King (J-M Buttin 71), N Nakaitaci; D Skrela (B James 50), M Parra; L Faure ( C Ric 60), B Kayser, D Zirakashvili (D Kotze 50), N Hines, J Pierre (J White 71), J Bonnaire, G Vosloo, E Vermeulen (J Bardy 64)

Referee: W Barnes

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