Ulster fail to take their chances with powerful Clermont
Clermont 29 Ulster 13
Few visiting teams can manage a win in the Stade Marcel Michelin. None will do so wasting as many opportunities as Ulster did yesterday.
With Clermont now odds-on to go on and book a home quarter-final, the northern province are left with a best case scenario of playing a quarter-final tie away from Kingspan Stadium, surely ruing the lack of execution that afflicted them throughout their loss in the Auvergne.
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Brimming with intent from the opening kick-off, Dan McFarland's men in the opening ten minutes looked primed for a performance that would have yielded a famous victory and booked their knock-out spot a week ahead of next week's now make-or-break clash with Bath.
An early penalty from John Cooney was the reward for their first break through the hosts' defensive line, unfortunately though the passage would end up being illustrative of the side's afternoon.
While on the surface, the scrum-half's three-pointer was a promising beginning, it came only after Ulster had spurned a glorious opportunity for a quick-fire try, failing to get the ball to the outside with a gilt-edged, four-on-one overlap developing on the wing. Just not quite sharp enough - a refrain that was to be repeated throughout the defeat.
When Cooney was to grab the first try of the day - his ninth of the season and fifth in the Champions Cup - with only eight minutes gone, it would have seemed unlikely that following the conversion Ulster would add only three more points to their early tally yet so it proved.
A 10-9 lead at the break was scarce reward for their first-half performance and, after 120 minutes of indifferent fare against their visitors this season, Clermont finally clicked into gear to pull well clear by the final whistle.
Three times Ulster turned down shots at the posts in the first-half of a game they trailed by only three points with a quarter of an hour remaining, but three times came up short of a try that would have brought a fairer reflection of the opening 40.
Most glaring was a line-out miscue from five metres out after Morgan Parra had been sent to the bin and the failure to register any points during the ten minutes against 14 men was indicative of a wider issue
"You have to take your opportunities when you get them and it was probably a period when we would have wanted to get more ball and get more points potentially," said McFarland. "A couple of mauls could have went a little bit better for us but this place is difficult to come too, a difficult pack to try and maul against and that is kind of the crux of it."
When last here in 2016, Ulster were beat out the gate by a far superior outfit. This loss, though, will carry with it a very different manner of frustration.
"They scored 29 points," McFarland said, by way of explanation for his side's desire to go for broke rather than build a score. "The way I look at it is, when they're down to 14 men and you kick to the corner, if you can't score tries, you're not a good enough team to win in Clermont, It's as simple as that."
A regular tactic that has served Ulster well more often than not this season, in the opinion of McFarland sending the ball to the corner was not to blame, rather the lack of execution when they did.
"We're right in the middle of one of the most challenging places in Europe to come and play," he added. "They had a record crowd here, everything's bouncing, and they're coming in firing so lets not underestimate the challenge that we faced."
Scorers - Clermont: Tries: A Raka, G Moala. Pens: M Parra 2, G Laidlaw 2. Cons: Parra, Laidlaw. Dp Gl: C Lopez. Ulster: Try: J Cooney. Pens: Cooney 2. Con: Cooney.
Clermont: N Abendanon; D Penaud, I Toeava, G Moala, A Raka; C Lopez, M Parra; E Falgoux, J Ulugia, R Slimani; P Jedrasiak, S Vahaamahina; A Itturria, A Lapandry, F Lee.
Reps: A Fischer for Iturria (22), S Timani for Lee (40), A Nagalevu for Abendanon, Y Behergaray for Ulugia, S Falatea for Slimani (all 64), G Laidlaw (for Parra, 67), L Uhila for Falgoux (69).
Ulster: W Addison; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor, I Henderson (c); S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Reps: T O'Toole for Moore (49), M Faddes for Addison (50), E O'Sullivan (60), K Treadwell for O'Connor, Matthew Rea for Murphy, D Shanahan for Cooney, B Johnston for Burns (all 69).
Referee: M Carley (Eng).
Sunday Indo Sport