Slick Ulster hoping slack last quarter won't come back to haunt them
When they needed it most, Ulster's big names were back to their best to lift the province to a performance that few had predicted.
Ulster 39 Clermont A32
Since topping the Pro12 after a five from five start to the season, Les Kiss' side had looked lethargic throughout October and November.
As a combination of injuries and international commitments robbed them of many of their shining lights, they slumped to four losses in five before rebounding to beat Cardiff to begin December.
While Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne and Marcell Coetzee are still on the sidelines, with the rest of the key men back in harness to face Clermont on Saturday, the Top14 pace-setters came out second best.
Les Jaunards arrived in Belfast to much fanfare, with Kiss claiming their team-sheet would "put the fear of God in you".
And while they played their part in a nine-try thriller, especially the sparkling Wesley Fofana who the hosts simply couldn't handle, it was Ulster's heavy hitters who made the more telling contributions.
With Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry - Ulster's only forwards with more than a handful of Irish caps to their name - in the same starting pack for the first time in six months, the unit matched their physically imposing visitors in the tight exchanges.
And it was a similar case in the back-line where Paddy Jackson was back to direct the flow of Ulster's game, working so well once again with scrum-half Ruan Pienaar.
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In a helter-skelter first-half, the lead changed hands seven times and, while Ulster were in front for the entirety of the second 40, the frantic finish maintained plenty of drama right to the end.
The visitors took the lead after just 67 seconds, but Luke Marshall responded quickly with the first of a brace and so a pattern was established.
Ulster produced scores of real quality but were hampered by poor restarts and missed tackles - which indeed came at a frequency of one out of every five.
Pienaar's cross-kick, coming with penalty advantage on his side, and the aerial claim by Tommy Bowe to set up a try for Henderson, required precise execution from all parties but there was nothing measured about what followed for Clermont's second.
There were fine hands from the visitors to put Scott Spedding away in the corner, but Ulster had contributed having lost a lineout and been turned over in the scrum in the preceding minutes.
Jackson's skill with the boot for Ulster to re-take the lead would have been right at home in Windsor Park, and Marshall's second after the turn ensured Ulster at least a try-scoring bonus.
Having banked four tries just once in the first three months of the campaign, the feat has already been managed twice in December.
The hosts were in the ascendancy and, with double World Superbike Champion Jonathan Rea having been paraded at half-time, Charles Piutau produced a champagne moment of his own to build a big lead.
After Best - skippering the side again due to Trimble's injury - went for the corner when a successful penalty would have created a gap of two scores, the ball was worked from the line-out to the Kiwi full-back.
Still with three men between him and the line, there was plenty to do but such is his talent, he made it look straightforward.
Having spent the early games of his Kingspan career creating openings for others, Piutau has now scored three in his last four.
A Jackson penalty moved Ulster 21 points clear but the excitement was far from over.
Tries from Nick Abendanon and Damien Chouly had Ulster rocking, with a yellow card for replacement Rodney Ah You not helping matters, but they somehow held on, sealing victory after Spedding knocked on with the clock red.
Chouly's try did, however, secure two bonus points for the visitors, and Ulster's final-quarter display could end up costing them.
It was the second two-point swing in an Ulster game during this campaign, after what should have been a losing bonus for the visitors became a fourth try for Bordeaux in the Stade Chaban Delmas back in October.
That, though, will be a discussion for later in the competition.
For now, their hopes are very much alive.
Ulster - C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey (D Cave 68), L Ludik; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall (A Warwick 56), R Best (R Herring 77), W Herbst (R Ah You 61); P Browne, R Diack (K Treadwell 41); I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy (C Ross 74).
Clermont Auvergne - S Spedding; D Strettle (A Raka 18), R Lamerat (B Stanley 67), W Fofana, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; R Chaume (E Falgoux 47), B Kayser (Y Behergaray 9), D Zirakashvili (C Ric 77); F Van der Merwe, S Vahaamahina (S Timani 64); D Chouly, A Lapandry, P Yato (C Gerondeau 56).
Ref - W Barnes (RFU).