Ulster 34 Clermont 31
It was a strange enough encounter. Entertaining, as an eight-try contest should be, but with the bigger picture of the next round of 16 never entirely out of sight.
Ulster, of course, were already there, but winning to secure second seeding was their goal and with it the chance of a home quarter-final should they come through April’s round of home and away ties.
Clermont weren’t so certain of their fate should they lose and for a while played as if it didn’t really matter.
With the game, though, you had Ulster pulling away to lead 34-12 and assume they would amble to four pool wins from four before Clermont awoke to unleash their bench and suddenly play with an abandon that saw them score three tries in the closing stages.
But the unusual feel to the occasion was also added to by the outcome and the lack of clarity, on Saturday evening, of exactly who Ulster would face in April’s home and away round of 16, while Clermont were left to wonder if they would still advance which, as it turned out a few hours later, they did thanks to Glasgow’s defeat.
At least there was one certainty and that was that Ulster are away for the first leg of the last 16 before then bringing their challengers – on Saturday evening – it was thought that champions Toulouse could be the most likely opposition to the Kingspan.
“Do I feel disadvantaged going away for the first leg, not necessarily,” was Ulster coach Dan McFarland’s response as something was sought to be said about what comes next.
“When I was at Connacht, I played in a number of back-to-back games when you went away first. I personally preferred going away first but it is what it is. You’ve got two games to put up the points.
“The first one being away is tougher, but we don’t mind going away. We’ve had a few good away victories this year,” he added with a nod to beating Clermont and Northampton Saints in their own back yards as well as the rarity of taking Leinster’s scalp in the URC.
And yet for all Ulster's attacking brio – with Ireland squad members Michael Lowry, James Hume, Rob Herring, Robert Baloucoune and Kieran Treadwell all prominent – the northern province are savvy enough to know that they could do with some of their more established squad members being fit for April allowing McFarland the option of bringing the likes of Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Stuart McCloskey and even John Cooney back into circulation.
Herring, who scored twice on Saturday evening, spoke of Ulster’s growing belief and touched on the need to take another step forward to reach the last eight.
“We should have closed that out properly [against Clermont] and put more points on them. But as the squad gains experience, and we learn from these knockout stages, we’ve got to take that step forward.
“I 100% believe we can go on and win it, but we’ve got a long way to go still. But if we get through the top 16 we have the carrot of a home quarter-final at a sold-out Kingspan.”
As for Saturday, Ulster had led 17-12 when the sides changed ends with Herring crossing twice – his second scored when Alivereti Raka was in the bin at the end of the opening half – and Lowry also getting over.
Duane Vermuelen barrelled through from close range just before Raka returned – Ulster racked up 17 unanswered points during the Fijian’s absence – and just after the hour, Billy Burns put Baloucoune clear for Ulster’s fifth touchdown.
Burns’ conversion – he had taken over after Nathan Doak left the field – put Ulster in a seemingly unassailable 34-12 lead.
But with Clermont having brought on Damian Penaud and Camille Lopez, the latter for JJ Hanrahan, they opted for ambition after earlier relying on Morgan Parra's boot.
With As Jacobus van Tonder, Raka and Judicael Cancoriet all puncturing the Ulster line in the space of six minutes, Ulster were on the ropes with the clock providing a helping hand to avoid a complete reversal in fortune.
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)