Alan O’Connor praises Ulster ‘guts’after Champions Cup victory over Clermont

Skipper Alan O’Connor hailed Ulster’s squad depth as the province kicked off their Heineken Champions Cup campaign by stunning Clermont with a 29-23 win at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

By Ciaran Donaghy
Sunday, 12th December 2021, 12:14 pm
Updated Sunday, 12th December 2021, 12:23 pm

Ulster travelled to France without a host of internationals including Iain Henderson, Marty Moore, Brad Roberts, Jacob Stockdale and Will Addison but were still able to claim a first victory in four attempts in Auvergne.

“We have such a competitive squad, there are 40-odd guys that could have been out on the pitch and I’d back every one of them to do a job,” said O’Connor.

“I don’t think we rely on our individuals but obviously individuals add to the collective: as a unit people can slot in and out fairly easy and it is seamless, and it is just about backing it up against Saints and really going for it.

Ulster's scrum-half from Ireland John Cooney (2R) kicks the ball during the Champions Cup rugby union match between Clermont and Ulster on December 11, 2021 at the Michelin stadium in Clermont-Ferrand, central France. (Photo by THIERRY ZOCCOLAN / AFP) (Photo by THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“We spoke about guts before the game going away to big places like Clermont and we really stood up and enjoyed and embraced the challenge.”

The hype around the game may have been about world cup winner Duane Vermeulen’s debut but it was his fellow back rower and Ulster’s player of the season, Nick Timoney, who scored the decisive try 12 minutes before full-time to regain Ulster the lead at 26-20 with a John Cooney penalty adding insurance.

“I think Nick has been awesome, getting called up for the Argentine game was brilliant and he is getting the rewards for his consistent performances for Ulster,” added O’Connor.

“Nick has been really stepping up and he has been for the past few years, but this year he is definitely getting an extra level to his game and as a team we are definitely reaping the rewards of Nick and he is a great player to have on the pitch with us.”

Ulster face Northampton Saints at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night in their second European Pool game - the English Premiership side lost 45-14 to Racing 92 in their opener - and it will be Ulster’s first home game since defeating the Lions in the United Rugby Championship on October 15.

“It’s going to be an exciting game and we are at home which is brilliant because we haven’t been there for a fair while with the four-week break for the internationals as well,” said O’Connor.

“European nights at home in Kingspan Stadium are always special.

“We will be on top of the mindset early in the week, we’ll enjoy this win but we’ll look forward to welcoming Northampton to Belfast and we’re looking forward to meeting that challenge head-on as well.”

Ulster’s first mission was to silence the hostile and passionate home crowd.

And they duly delivered, with the home side’s indiscipline gifting John Cooney three penalties in the opening 14 minutes with the scrum-half landing all three.

Ulster extended their lead to 16-0 on 27 minutes when centre Stuart McCloskey powered over from close range following a patient build-up, with Cooney again converting.

French winger Damian Penauad got enough downward pressure on a Crossfield get to register Clermont’s first points with JJ Hanrahan converting.

Clermont lock Jacobus Van Tonder was yellow-carded on 36 minutes for a dangerous tackle on Robert Baloucoune, with the Ulster winger forced to leave the action with a shoulder injury.

Coach Dan McFarland was unable to comment on the seriousness of the injury but has ruled the Irish speedster out of the Northampton Saints game on Friday.

Cooney landed the resulting penalty, before Hanrahan cut Ulster’s half-time lead to 19-10 with the final kick of the first half.

Penaud produced an outrageous piece of skill for his second try, Hanrahan converted and added a penalty to give Clermont a 20-19 lead.

Timoney was alert to pick the ball up and go over after a deliberate knock-on by Cheikh Tiberghien. After a long debate between the officials and the TMO, the try was awarded and the Clermont full-back was sin-binned.

Cooney converted and added a penalty from his own half before Hanrahan secured Clermont a late bonus point with a penalty.

Clermont: C Tiberghien, D Penaud, JP Barraque, T Viki, Ai Raka, JJ Hanrahan, K Viallard P Ravai, Y Beheregaray, R Slimani, J Van Tonder, S Vahaamahina, A Iturria, P Yato, F Lee.

Replacements: B Boudou for Beheregray 74 mins, E Falgoux for Ravai 58 mins, C Ojovan for Slimani 59 mins, T Lanen for van Tonder 46 mins, L Dessaigne for Lee 69 mins, S Bezy for Viallard 51 mins, G Michet for Tiberghien 78 mins, M O’Connor for Barraque 63 mins.

Ulster: M Lowry, R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney, A Warwick, R Herring, T O’Toole, A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell, M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen:

Replacements: J Andrew, J McGrath for Warwick 52 mins, R Kane for O’Toole 67 mins, S Carter, G Jones for Vermeulen 50 mins, S Reidy for Treadwell 63 mins, N Doak, S Moore for Baloucoune 36 mins.

Refere: W Barnes (RFU).

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