Ulster 34 Clermont Auvergne 31
What a game which slowly bubbled until a breathless finishing stretch.
Ulster, though punctured at the end, bagged their desired second seeding in Pool A and had looked secure until Clermont’s bench brought them back to within touching distance in a frantic last 10 minutes.
But the hosts had just about done enough go to four from four in the pool stages, which ought to have been the case really after leading 34-12 on 65 minutes.
As it was, Ulster had already nailed five tries with Ireland’s Six Nations squad members all playing a prominent role, Rob Herring scoring twice, Michael Lowry and Robert Baloucoune once each.
There were also strong showings from man of the match James Hume and Kieran Treadwell while Ulster’s fifth brought Springbok Duane Vermuelen his first touchdown since joining.
Though it will be a concern that the home side badly fell away in the closing stages, there was plenty of quality on show in the performance prior to that which appeared to have deflated Clermont until their late charge, inspired by their bench, brought them what could be a vital point.
Ulster were up and running early and from the second penalty in quick succession put into the corner, Ireland squad members Kieran Treadwell and Rob Herring combined with Herring peeling off and just about dotting down after just seven minutes.
Nathan Doak’s conversion hit the post and stayed out and five minutes later Morgan Parra slotted a penalty to cut the host’s lead to 5-3.
Clermont then crept into the lead after 18 minutes when Parra punished Ulster for conceding a scrum penalty.
Michael Lowry then showed his pace during a penalty advantage on 22 minutes though Doak was again wide with the extras.
But Clermont again quickly came back with Parra landing his third penalty on 25 minutes to cut Ulster’s lead to 10-9.
Alivereti Raka then made ground on the left which resulted in a penalty and Parra did the needful to put the visitors ahead.
But Ulster roared back into this see-saw contest and after Ethan McIlroy was held short, Raka was shown yellow and from the resulting penalty to the corner, the hosts scored again with a carbon copy of the first try when Herring smashed over.
This time Doak kicked the extras and Ulster led 17-12 at the break.
Five minutes into the new half, Clermont strayed offside and Doak kicked this penalty chance to make it 20-12 to the home side just before the visitors were returned to a full complement.
On 50 minutes, Ulster launched a multi-phase attack which led to Lowry coming up short before Duane Vermuelen smashed through to score, Doak slotting his second conversion.
Ulster crossed for a fifth try which came five minutes after the hour. Lowry broke down the left and after some slick transfer, Robert Baloucoune was put clear by Billy Burns who then converted.
At 34-12 the game looked secure for Ulster but with Clermont’s notable bench now released for action, the home side began to struggle.
Jacobus van Tonder then popped up to surge over for Clermont’s first try after good work from Damian Penaud though Camille Lopez missed the conversion.
Clermont, playing now with abandon, then scored again when Raka got on the end of a sweeping move, the score being converted by Lopez to cut Ulster’s lead to 10 points.
With the game now fast and loose it was no surprise when skipper Judicael Cancoriet then touched down with five on the clock. Lopez didn’t hang about and his conversion cut Ulster’s lead to 34-31 though the home side held firm to the end with a monster Baloucoune tackle ending the contest.
Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, A Curtis, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; E O'Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor (capt), K Treadwell; M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Replacements: B Roberts for Herring 72mins, J McGrath for O'Sullivan 67mins, T O'Toole for Moore 54mins, S Carter for O'Connor 63mins, G Jones for Vermuelen 54mins, D Shanahan for Doak 64mins, B Moxham for Curtis 60mins, C Gilroy for Burns 67 mins.
Clermont: C Tiberghien; M O'Connor, J-P Barraque, T Vili, A Raka; JJ Hanrahan, M Parra; E Falgoux, Y Beheregaray, R Slimani; P Jedrasiak, T Lavanini; J Cancoriet (capt), L Dessaigne, J van Tonder. Replacements: E Fourcade for Beheregaray 57mins, D-B Biwizu for Falgoux 56mins, C Ojovan for Slimani 28mins, S Vahaamahina for Lavanini 54mins, F Lee for Dessaigne 75mins, K Viallard for Parra 67mins, C Lopez for JJ Hanrahan 57mins, D Penaud for Vili 51 mins. Yellow cards: Raka 38mins
Referee: L Pearce (England)