Ulster come close to ending hoodoo
Clermont 19 Ulster 15
Ulster fell agonisingly short in their bid to claim home advantage in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup with a narrow loss in France.
Brian McLaughlin's men had a place in the last eight securely tucked up their jerseys before kick-off but there was no lack of desire to progress on their own terms and to break their hoodoo of not winning on French soil.
But inside the cauldron atmosphere of Stade Marcel Michelin, a 60th-minute try from replacement hooker Titi Paulo proved the difference in another enthralling tie.
Titi barged his way over from close range to end Ulster's stubborn resistance as Clermont kept their 39-game unbeaten home run intact to stay in the running for a return to the same venue in the last eight.
Ruan Pienaar kicked five penalties for the 1999 Heineken Cup kings who almost backed up their 41-7 thrashing of Leicester with an equally impressive showing.
After weathering the early storm in what has to be one of the liveliest atmospheres in world rugby, Ulster found themselves down to 14 men as a result of a moment of madness from Dan Tuohy.
The in-form second-row forward dumped Morgan Parra on his backside right under the nose of referee Dave Pearson as the Clermont scrumhalf looked to take a quick tap and Ulster's task suddenly got a whole lot harder.
McLaughlin's men took the setback in their stride and were only a single penalty behind at 6-3 when Tuohy returned 10 minutes later. A 17th-minute effort from Pienaar was sandwiched in between two short-range strikes from Parra as Clermont failed to make the most of their numerical advantage.
A loose pass from Clermont skipper Aurélien Rougerie then almost gifted Craig Gilroy a 25-metre run in but the tiniest of ankle taps from Lionel Faure saved the French centre's blushes.
Pienaar was off-target with a 28th-minute shot at goal before levelling the scores four minutes later from wide on the right. Ulster will feel three points could easily have been seven, however, as they blew a substantial overlap as Ian Humphreys' looping pass forced Andrew Trimble to break his stride and allowed the covering defence to pull him down just short.
Pienaar missed a second penalty attempt 40 seconds before the break but handed Ulster a 9-6 lead five minutes after the restart. The two kickers then exchanged a penalty apiece -- with Parra striking on 48 minutes and Pienaar on 56 -- before Paulo delivered the game's central blow.
Parra's conversion pushed Clermont four points clear but Ulster refused to give up. Pienaar landed another penalty and, although Parra hit back, Ulster could have won it at the death had Rory Best's throw in at a close-range lineout at the death hit its mark.
Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne (R King, 70); S Sivivatu, A Rougerie, W Fofana, J Malzieu; D Skrela (B James, 46), M Parra; L Faure (V Debaty, 46), B Kayser (T Paulo, 52), C Ric (D Kotze, 64); J Pierre (J Cudmore, 67), N Hines, G Vosloo, J Bardy (A Lapandry, 56) J Bonnaire.
Ulster: S Terblanche; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys (P Marshall, 61), R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg (W Faloon, 74)
Referee: D Pearson (England)
Sunday Indo Sport