Ulster hold on to claim bonus-point win in Belfast belter
Clermont Auvergne take two bonus points back to France after nine-try thriller
Charles Piutau scores Ulster’s fifth try in the European Champions Cup match against Clermont Auvergne at Kingspan stadium in Belfast. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho/Presseye
Ulster 39 Clermont Auvergne 32
A remarkable afternoon in Belfast , nine tries, in a rip roaring Champions Cup match and the points being divvied up, 5-2, in favour of the home side.
Clermont Auvergne will be reasonably satisfied, particularly in the manner in which they fought back, scoring the final two tries of the match: four tries and losing by less than seven points ensured they returned to France for Sunday week’s rematch with a tangible return, still in charge of the pool; for now.
Ulster’s performance, in the light of a litany of injuries, was of the highest calibre. That applies in terms of spirit and the quality of rugby they produced. The home side scored five tries, including three beauties. This occasion matched many in the storied afternoons of rugby in Belfast down through the years.
Ulster stood up and then some, brilliantly led by Rory Best, and in an outstanding team effort there were some superb individual efforts, not least man of the match Iain Henderson. Sean Reidy had a phenomenal game, Paddy Jackson was excellent, offering for inspection, the full expanse of his talent.
Robbie Diack in carrying, Chris Henry in limpet-like presence at the breakdown and the midfield creativity and power of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall were other eye-catching contributions. Charles Piutau was an irresistible force in attack, while Ruan Pienaar marshalled his team superbly.
Clermont sliced and diced Ulster at times and they’ll be pretty confident that they’ll be able to replicate that on Sunday week, albeit in a winning display. But when this game was up for grabs, they found Ulster irrepressible.
Ulster couldn’t have envisaged a worse start to the game, botching Camille Lopez’s kick-off, and handing possession and a decent field position to the visitors.
Clermont explored the full expanse of the pitch, keeping width and depth, while moving the ball from touchline to touchline. Eventually they discovered some softer shoulders in midfield and as the home side scrambled to reorganise, going backwards all the while, Clermont demonstrated some traditional Gallic flair.
Lopez made the initial break, and two rucks later, number eight Peceli Yato muscled his way over under the posts; the four-man overlap didn’t matter. Morgan Parra converted and the portents looked ominous for the home side.
Few could have appreciated the calibre of the next 39 minutes, a topsy-turvy, end-to-end, freewheeling spectacle, hugely entertaining and engaging to all bar the respective defence coaches.
Ulster response was beautifully crafted. McCloskey’s offload to the supporting Reidy saw the number eight escape into the Clermont 22. Jackson shaped to throw a long pass and instead popped the ball to Luke Marshall, coming from depth and on a glorious line.
The Irish centre scampered over untouched. Jackson converted but again from the re-start Ulster turned over possession and it ultimately cost them three points with Parra kicking a penalty.
The home side’s second try might have come 90 seconds before it materialised when Piutau broke clear but couldn’t find Tommy Bowe on his inside or put the ball in the hands of Pienaar having chosen the latter option. Following a loose clearance, Piutau reclaimed possession, Louis Ludik made a break and Ulster surged back in the Clermont 22.
Playing with a penalty advantage, Pienaar measured his cloud-splitting crosskick to perfection. It still required Bowe to out-jump two defenders and have the presence of mind while falling to offload to the supporting Henderson. Jackson didn’t add the conversion but did mange to tag on a penalty soon after to leave Ulster 15-10 ahead after 20 minutes.
Despite leading there were some issues that Ulster weren’t addressing, re-starts, and passive defence, where the tacklers were going high and getting bounced. The spacing in the midfield was a little generous and Clermont’s wonderfully gifted French international centre Wesley Fofana took advantage.
He found space where others looked for contact and his offloading out of the tackle allowed team-mates to gallop into space. Parra kicked a penalty and then in the space of a minute, Ulster lost a lineout on the halfway, and turned over possession from a scrum on the 22, that culminated with Scott Spedding diving over in the corner, following gorgeous hands.
Parra couldn’t convert but Ulster trailed 18-15; well they did for the full four minutes. Jackson produced arguably the individual moment of the half and that’s a lofty accolade given the quality of the attacking play.
Ulster worked their way to about 30 metres from the Clermont line and then Jackson spotting a little space in behind, pushed a grubber through, controlled the next nudge with his foot beautifully and showed great composure to re-gather the ball on the bounce and dive over.
The Irish outhalf converted his own try and the home side escaped to the dressing room clinging on to a 22-18 half-time lead. No one expected the second half to continue in the same vein but it did; no diminution in the excitement levels.
The home side grabbed a bonus point try within five minutes of the restart, McCloskey, swatting aside a couple of tackles and although grounded just short of the line, Luke Marshall was on hand to better his way over for a second try. Jackson converted as he would do again on 53 minutes, this time Piutau crossing in the corner after Ulster had initially offered a full frontal assault.
The New Zealander showed poise and strength and a brazen dummy to Bowe to boot. Jackson kicked a magnificent touchline conversion. Ulster led the French Top 14 league leaders by 36-18 and on 56 minutes pushed that to 39-18 with a well-struck Jackson penalty from the Clermont 10 metre line.
Ulster began to tire a little and the same defensive issues resurfaced. Clermont took some encouragement and energy from their bench. Nick Abendanon brushed off Andy Warwick’s tackle on an inside pass to cross under the posts and when Damien Chouly forced his way over – they were both converted by Parra – the lead was down to seven 39-32.
The home side played keep ball through four minutes of rucking and recycling before Clermont were handed one final opportunity but a knock-on in midfield brought an end to a hugely enjoyable afternoon in Belfast and a gutsy, character-laden and at times, breathtaking performance from the home side.
It was an exceptional performance in the circumstances.
1 min: Yato try, Para conversion, 0-7; 6: L Marshall try, Jackson conversion, 7-7; 9: Parr penalty, 7-10; 15: Henderson try, 12-10; 20: Jackson penalty, 15-10; 26: Parra penalty, 15-13; 30: Spedding try, 15-18; 34: Jackson try, Jackson conversion, 22-18. Halftime: 22-18. 45: L Marshall try, Jackson conversion, 29-18; 53: Piutau try, Jackson conversion, 36-18; 57: Jackson penalty, 39-18; 62: Abendanon try, Parra conversion, 39-25; 73: D Chouly try, Parra conversion, 39-32;
ULSTER: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (capt), W Herbst; P Browne, R Diack; I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
Replacements: K Treadwell for Diack (half-time); R Ah You for Herbst (60 mins); D Cave for McCloskey (67 mins); C Ross for Reidy (73 mins); R Herring for Best (76 mins); Herbst for Henry (79 mins).
Yellow card: R Ah You (74 mins).
CLERMONT AUVERGNE: S Spedding; D Strettle, R Lamerat, W Fofana, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; R Chaume, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili; F van der Merwe, S Vahaamahina; D Chouly (capt), A Lapandry, P Yato.
Replacements: A Raka for Strettle (16 mins); E Falgoux for Chaume (46 mins); C Gerondeau for Yato (55 mins); S Timani for Vahaamahina (63 mins); B Stanley for Lamaret (66 mins); C Ric for Zirakashvil (76 mins).
Referee: W Barnes (England).