Ulster (22) 39
TRY: Luke Marshall (2), Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Charles Piutau. CON: Paddy Jackson (4). PEN: Paddy Jackson (2).
Clermont Auvergne (18) 32
TRY: Peceli Yato, Scott Spedding, Nick Abendanon, Damien Chouly. CON: Morgan Parra (3). PEN: Morgan Parra (2)

Ulster kept their European Rugby Champions Cup hopes alive with a sparkling bonus point win against Pool leaders Clermont eartly on Saturday afternoon. 

Luke Marshall, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson scored in a pulsating first as  the lead changed hands seven times. Marshall crossed for his brace early in the second and Piutau took the long way round for Ulster’s fifth on the 54th minute. Paddy Jackson converted four of the five tries as well as two penalties. 

I’ll get this out of the way early. I’d predicted a win for Clermont, but Ulster, thankfully, dug deep and proved me wrong with the sort of performance that the fans have been looking for all season, the clinical backline finally clicking to take on the French Top 14 league leaders at their own game in a pulsating encounter. Fantastic! 

It didn’t start that way however and, by the time I’d finally settled down to watch, Ulster were already 0 – 7 down thanks to a early score by Peceli Yato after Clermont had retained possession from the kick off and didn’t give it up until Yato barged over under the posts. Oh well, I though, I’ll sit and fume through the first half than head down early for the women’s game in Dublin I thought, but by the seventh minute when Luke Marshall ran a wonderful line to cross unopposed I was yipping and yelling with the best of them as this glorious encounter unfolded. 

Jackson added the extras to level the score but Clermont were soon back in front with a Parra penalty but we only had to wait five minutes before Ulster took the lead for the first time when Iain Henderson crossed for an unconverted try after a precise cross field kick from Pienaar was fielded by Tommy Bowe and popped into the arms of the looping Henderson. 

The scores continued at a regular pace. Jackson and Parra swapped penalties to take the score to 15 – 13 before Scott Spedding crossed just past the half hour mark to put Clermont back in front. Parra missed the conversion from out wide and by the 35th minute Ulster were back in front after Jackson collected his own grubber to score a converted try close to the posts. Phew – the pace was relentless. 

Ulster held on for the remaining four minutes of the first half and the teams turned round with the score reading Ulster 22 Clermont 18.

The home side came out for the second half full of intent and by the 45th minute the bonus point was in the bag with Marshall crossing for his second from short range. Jackson converted and the game looked to be won minutes later when Piutau jinked his way to the line for Ulster’s fifth. Jackson converted and a penalty minutes later moved the score to 39 – 18 before the hour was up. 

I started to check my camera kit and get my thermals on ready for the trip to Dublin but before I could get out the door Clermont were back in the game when Nick Abendanon crossed for a converted try to take it to 39 – 25 and the game was back on. 

There was a wait of over ten minutes before the next try but by that time the game had changed with Clermont’s replacements making a difference as Ulster’s replacement props struggled with the pace of the game, Warrick being wrong footed for Abendanon’s try. 

Some of the gloss was taken off Ulster’s win as Clermont grabbed two points out of the game with a bonus point try and a losing bonus when Damien Chouly crossed for a converted try on the 74th minute and it became decidedly tense when Rodney Ah You was yellow carded for a reckless tackle a minute later but Ulster held on to record another memorable win at Ravenhill. 

Final score: Ulster 39 Clermont 32.

Ulster: Charles Piutau, Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik, Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar, Kyle McCall, Rory Best, Wiehahn Herbst, Pete Browne, Robbie Diack, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy. Replacements: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Jacob Stockdale.

As it Stands. 

It’s a very close group and Ulster are not guaranteed winning it even if they win their next three games. They do however have several paths to qualification either as Pool winners or as one of the top three Pool runners up. 

It would be considerably clearer if they could follow up this performance with a win in Clermont next Sunday afternoon but I suspect a losing bonus and two further wins would be enough. It looks likely that it’ll all come down to the final game against Bordeaux at home and Ulster would probably be happy enough at that. 

Pool 5 after Round 3
Clermont 3 2 0 1 116 80 4 12
Bordeaux 3 2 0 1 74 69 1 9
Ulster 3 2 0 1 71 78 1 9
Exeter 3 0 0 3 33 67 2 2