Ulster take vital win over Clermont in Belfast to move top of European Cup pool
ULSTER 18 CLERMONT 13
Ulster moved top of Pool Three with a determined performance to secure a deserved win over French side, Clermont.
They were unable to stop the Top 14 side claiming a valuable away losing bonus point, although given the dominance of the visitors in the last quarter, Ulster dug in to secure victory.
Ulster will now look to consolidate their position in the group with back-to-back games against Harlequins next month as they bid to make the knockout stages in consecutive European campaigns.
This was the third meeting in Belfast between the clubs in the Heineken Cup, Ulster making sure it was another home success on their 150th appearance in Europe.
John Cooney kicked an early penalty opportunity from 30m after two minutes and it looked as if the scrumhalf was going to add a try to that shortly afterwards.
Billy Burns’ deft chip was gathered by Stuart McCloskey, who fed Cooney on the inside but as he raced towards the line with fullback NIck Abendanon only to beat, he stumbled and the ball dropped forward.
Clermont had the possession and territory after that, earning scrum penalties and getting on the front foot but Ulster held them out well, but always aware of the threat posed by winger Peter Betham.
Then a turnover in midfield, a penalty to touch and Ulster looked to route one, but that was blocked - illegally. The penalty was popped to touch again and Ulster confidently drove to the line, a second surge taking them over. After a TMO review Jordi Murphy was awarded the try and Cooney converted for a 10-0 lead after 17 minutes.
Minutes later it looked as if Clermont had responded with a try of their own, but winger Aliverteu Raka was deemed to have knocked the ball on as he chased the kick in from Betham.
Ulster had weather another minor French storm and when they won a free kick off a scrum on their own line, kicked and began to make inroads. A Burns crossfield kick was right on the money for winger Jacob Stockdale, who made ground before giving the pass inside to Luke Marshall. The cover was there to bundle him into touch.
A huge tackle from Will Addison on Clermont lock Paul Jedrasiak saw the French player forced off HIA, but it was the visitors who finally opened their account Scottish scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw landing a penalty on 32 minutes to reduced the deficit to seven points.
But Cooney restored that advantage to 10 points again four minutes from the break with a regulation penalty kick.
Clermont rung the changes in the second half, replacing their entire front five, but it was Ulster who still made the running a promising attack breaking down when Stuart McCloskey dropped the ball.
A cheap penalty giveaway presented Clermont with a scoring chance, but Laidlaw was inches side with the effort and UIster were let off the hook on 54 minutes, however another chance arrive five minutes later the scrumhalf made no mistake and it was 13-6.
Ulster responded strongly and from a lineout Cooney took matters into his own hands chipped the cover and then showed more football skills to dribble and then dive on the ball.
The conversion was missed by Ulster had an 18-6 lead after 62 minutes.
Clermont were on the offensive from that and pressed the Irish Province hard in the right corner, forcing two straight penalties, then a third and when the fourth game, it was a simple decision for referee JP Doyle - having already issued the warning - to go the posts and award the penalty try - the easiest seven points the visitors got all evening.
The closing stages saw the French get a number of penalties going their way, but a determined Ulster were to dig in and ensure they never really threatened further.