Opinion: Ulster must put their French disappointment behind them

A dejected Iain Henderson leaves the pitch after the match. Credit �INPHO/Billy Stickland
A dejected Iain Henderson leaves the pitch after the match. Credit �INPHO/Billy Stickland
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There was to be no shock result in the magnificent arena that is Stade Marcel-Michelin as ASM Clermont Auvergne secured their place in the last eight of the Heineken European Champions Cup with a 29-13 win over Ulster.

Ulster left the French town on Saturday night disappointed and frustrated that they were unable to find the performance level needed to have taken the win which would have sent them into the last eight and crucially be looking for a home quarter-final rather than now needing to defeat Bath on Saturday to secure their place in the knock-out stages as one of three best runners-up across the five pools.

There was no underestimating the extent of Ulster’s challenge in coming to what is widely regarded as the best venue in Europe for a club rugby match, facing a classy Clermont side, but the Irish province certainly arrived with confidence and started with intent.

Dan McFarland’s side dominated possession and territory stats, but the stats they needed to dominate floundered, losing two lineouts, the scrum not as solid as it could have been and conceding 13 penalties.

Winning the big crunch games in Europe against formidable opposition comes down to fine margins and in the end Ulster were unable to take their opportunities when they were there.

This tie was a quality European game between two physical sides who were vying for the honours which would secure a home quarter-final - on this occasion Ulster came up short, losing their first game of the campaign and having to pick themselves up to ensure they get the business done at home against Bath in Belfast this weekend.

There was no question of lack of effort from Ulster, they came out with intent from the start and had at one stage put some doubt into the Clermont players and indeed the sellout crowd who were not quite as noisy as they usually are for a spell during the first half when Ulster led 10-6.

Critically Ulster were unable to score any points when the French side lost Morgan Parra to the sin-bin in the second quarter and they also turned down three kickable penalty attempts to go for touch and attempt to go for tries. Of course it is impossible to say that those nine points could have been vital in the final outcome, but going in at the break with a 19-6 lead would have put further doubt in the heads of the hosts.

As these things usually go, Clermont got back to full strength and Parra kicks a penalty to make it a one-point game, and eight minutes into the second half the French score a try (although there still remains some doubt over that first try in the second half even if it was confirmed on TMO review) and their lead is 16-10 - it could have been 13-19.

There will always be ‘ifs and buts’ in the end Ulster were unable to make their chances count in the first half and then deal with a powerful second half display by Clermont.

Ulster are continuing to develop and make progress as a squad. The goal was always to reach the last eight in Europe for successive seasons and doing so in a group containing Clermont as a runner-up will still be considered progress, even if we look back at perhaps an opportunity missed on this occasion.

The impact of this defeat on the squad mentally is not expected to impact on the performance needed at home against Bath, although captain Iain Henderson was also wary of a side with nothing to play for coming to Belfast.

He described the squad as having “bouncebackability” and the talk throughout the week leading to the game will certainly be focused around the fact Ulster have put themselves in the position to qualify from previous performances in the tournament, they will want to get the job done!

Provided there is no shock result in London where Clermont go to face Harlequins on Saturday and Ulster get the job done they should go into the last eight as sixth or seventh seeds, facing the second or third seeded side in the quarters.

That possibly could set up an away game against Exeter or Toulouse, but for now Ulster will not look ahead to April games in Europe, they have to get over the line in Belfast where they would clock up their 20th game unbeaten at home - one short of their previous record.

In terms of home grounds, and certainly Kingspan Stadium has enjoyed its fair share of loud nights in the past, there is no venue quite like Stade Marcel-Michelin.

I recalled at the launch for the European Champions Cup and players from teams in the group were all saying that it was fantastic to be going to the cauldron and it is one of their venues to play at on the bucket list. Interestingly all the teams in the group lost at the venue.

And for all my travels in covering rugby, this was one of those venues I had previously never been to.

It lived up to all its hype - and more. And the large number of travelling support that made the trip certainly enjoyed the atmosphere.

It is hostile - in a good way - the Clermont fans are passionate about their rugby and they know the game, but they are also some of the friendliest you will meet.

A brass band performs in the fans’ zones around the stadium in the build-up, even playing ‘Stand Up for the Ulstermen’ to the delight of visiting supporters. Fifteen minutes before kick-off the atmosphere is building, fans are in their seats and using their cardboard clappers make the most amazing noise. During the game the fans are vocal, even cheering when their own players are preparing to take a kick at goal. And it is constant, they are encouraged by the pitchside MC.

Ulster’s place kickers had the noise of the stadium played to them over headphones when they were preparing for the game during the week so they would be accustomed to it.

It really is a crazy sort of place and having enjoyed the experience I can understand why Stade Marcel-Michelin is on players’ and fans’ wishlists, and why Clermont are also so successful at home.