Sunday 8 December 2019

Superb Cooney sets the tone as Ulster survive fightback to secure one of their greatest European results

Ulster 18 Clermont Auvergne 13

Ulster Rugby's John Cooney goes over to score his sides second try during the Heineken Champions Cup Round 2 match at the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Ulster Rugby's John Cooney goes over to score his sides second try during the Heineken Champions Cup Round 2 match at the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

As a spectacle, it might not have been a classic, but this was one of Ulster’s great European results as they got the better of a star-studded Clermont Auvergne side.

For the second week running, Dan McFarland's men dug deep to eke out a crucial win that sees them in control of their Heineken Champions Cup pool.

Clermont were unrecognisable from last weekend, but that was down to the relentless pressure that the home side exerted throughout an absorbing 80 minutes.

It was too close for comfort though, and when Ulster look back on the game, they will feel that they should have been in far greater control.

Clermont were rudderless and the baffling decision to start Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez on the bench came back to haunt them.

The rain poured from the Belfast sky long before kick-off and in the biting cold, one wondered if Clermont would have the stomach for the fight.

The Ulster pack can take a lot of credit for ensuring that they didnt, and led by the indomitable Marcell Coetzee, they pounded the French side into submission. 

For all of the hosts' pressure, the game was still in the balance until John Cooney conjured up a moment of absolute brilliance after 63 minutes, and for the second consecutive week, it proved to be the match-winning intervention.

Andy Farrell was hidden away from the elements up in the stand and the new Ireland head coach will have been impressed with Cooney's performance as well as Jordi Murphy, and the front-row, who put in a huge shift.

"Look, any time in the Champions Cup that you play a French giant and you manage to win the game, you have to be happy with that," a proud McFarland said.

"There is a lot to be very pleased about with that performance, particularly in how we limited their opportunities when they had ball in hand. That was going to be a real threat."

A 10-point half-time lead should have been more but Ulster were guilty of butchering a couple of really good chances.

The home side set the tone early on as Cooney fired over a fourth-minute penalty after Peceli Yato blatantly came in at the side of a ruck. 

Ensured 

Cooney should have ensured that his side got over for the opening try a couple of minutes later, but he chose the wrong option in taking the ball on himself, with Murphy and Jacob Stockdale haring up on his outside.

Coetzee was continuing to dominate proceedings and when he brilliantly won a turnover penalty just after the quarter-hour mark, it set the platform for Ulster to score that first try, which they fully deserved.

Cooney found a superb touch and from there it was all about the pack as Alan O'Connor won the lineout before a really well-executed maul drove Clermont over the line. 

Murphy was the man credited with the try as the TMO couldn't find a reason not to award it. Cooney's conversion pushed Ulster 10-0 in front.

1189410971.jpg
Jordi Murphy of Ulster is tackled by Peceli Yato of ASM Clermont Auvergne during the Heineken Champions Cup Round 2 match on November 22, 2019 in Belfast (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

A rare Clermont foray into the opposition 22 might have yielded points but Alivereti Raka's try was correctly ruled out for a knock-on.

Ulster almost hit back immediately with their second try, but Luke Marshall couldn't adjust his body quickly enough to avoid the touchline.

Clermont were still struggling to string together any sort of meaningful phases, but they might have had a case when Will Addison's tackle on Paul Jedrasiak was deemed to be fair by the TMO. 

At best it warranted another look by referee JP Doyle as the lock's night was ended with him looking like he didn't know where he was.

The visitors did eventually get on the board on 32 minutes when Greig Laidlaw kicked three points following a scrum penalty.

Cooney cancelled that out with his second penalty after Peceli Yato was again penalised at the breakdown. That was good enough for a 13-3 lead at the break.

A couple of sloppy Ulster errors ended up with Laidlaw having a chance to cut the gap, but the Scottish scrum-half was off target with his 55th-minute effort. 

Laidlaw was soon handed a chance to make amends however, and this time he made no mistake as his penalty brought the score back to 13-6. 

Just as it looked like Clermont had clawed their way back into the game, Cooney came up with another moment of magic.

Sniping around the blindside of a ruck, he audaciously dinked the ball over Raka before showing great control with the ball at his feet to score a sensational try.

It called for cool heads to see out the game, but Ulster gifted Clermont what could prove to be a vital losing bonus point that they really didn't deserve. Suddenly it was now a five-point game with eight minutes left on the clock.

But Ulster held firm and, fittingly, it ended with them forcing yet another Clermont error as McFarland's men took control of their European destiny. 

Ulster – W Addison; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns (B Johnston 69), J Cooney; E O'Sullivan (K McCall 67), R Herring, M Moore (T O'Toole 67); A O'Connor (K Treadwell 58), I Henderson (capt); S Reidy (N Timoney 62), J Murphy, M Coetzee. 

Clermont Auvergne – N Abendanon (A Naqalevu 47); P Betham, I Toeava, G Maola, A Raka; J McIntyre (C Lopez 47), G Laidlaw (M Parra 64); E Falgoux (L Uhila 47), J Ulugia (M Tadjer 47), R Slimani (D Zirakashvili 47); P Jedrasiak (T Lanen 32), S Timani; P Yato, A Iturria (L Dessaigne 73-77), F Lee (capt). 

REF – JP Doyle (England).

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Online Editors

The Left Wing: The problem with the Champions Cup, the Stephen Larkham effect and trouble in Welsh rugby

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport