Captain Iain Henderson and head coach Dan McFarland were both left bemoaning missed opportunities as Ulster lost their first Heineken European Champions Cup pool game this season 29-13 to ASM Clermont Auvergne.
Tries from Alivereti Raka and George Moala helped secure victory for the French side, while John Cooney scored all of Ulster’s points with a try, conversion and a penalty at Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Ulster had led 10-9 and already put some doubt in the French side’s minds during what was a decent first half performance from the Irish Province.
But having managed to even quiet the noisy arena at one stage, Ulster were unable to push on and they slipped off the game in the second half allowing the French to secure the win which booked their place in the last eight.
Ulster can join them if they win at home against Bath on Saturday.
The fact that they still have all to play for in Pool Three is something Henderson wants the players to focus in on ahead of the visit of the English Premiership side to Kingspan Stadium, a venue where Ulster have not lost in 19 games.
At the team huddle at the end of a quality encounter Henderson revealed what he said.
“I just said to them we have one week left, there is all to play for we want to be making the knockout stages, that has been our goal from the start and it is still within our grasp,” he said.
“We have worked hard for the first four rounds in the Champions Cup and lets not allow those four weeks go to waste by not getting it right next week.”
Ulster had led 10-6 just before Clermont scrum half and captain Morgan Parra was sin-binned for persistent infringing, but the visitors turned down the opportunity to extend the scoreboard by kicking a number of penalties to touch and then their lineout did not deliver.
On the decision to go for the try Henderson said: “Very few times you will come to a place like and it comes down to a point or two at the end of the game, you need to try and back yourself to get points.
“We backed ourselves and fair play to Clermont they held us out and I suppose it’s hard to know if it will change the whole game, so you cannot say going for the posts before half time would have changed the final result.”
McFarland’s reaction to the same question was: “They scored 29 points. The way I look at it is, if you’re going to be good enough to win in Clermont, they’re down to 14 men and you kick to the corner, if you can’t score tries, you’re not a good enough team to win in Clermont, it’s as simple as that.
“If we take advantage of those opportunities and score, which we’re capable of doing, we’d have had a much better chance of going on and winning the game. If we’d kick three points there...maybe...but I don’t see Clermont as a team that folds under three extra points of pressure.”
But the coach was also disappointed with the eventual outcome.
“We are bitterly disappointed,” said McFarland.
“It was a game we had control of in the first half and we didn’t make our pressure pay when we should have done.
“You get your moments when you have your chances and if you don’t take them in a place like Clermont then that’s it. You’re done.
“If we took advantage of those opportunities and score, which we are capable of doing, then we’d have had a much better chance of going on to win the game.”
McFarland added: “They’re a good team but we’re a good team, we just didn’t play anywhere near our potential and that’s the most disappointing thing.
“We’re in a position where we could have controlled that game but we didn’t. We let them get away from us. It was in our grasp.”
“We’re right in the middle of one of the most challenging places in Europe to come and play. They had a record crowd here, everything’s bouncing, they’re coming in firing.
“Lets not underestimate the challenge that we faced. But on a couple of occasions we didn’t execute to the level that we needed to. In the second-half we lost two scrums which is unacceptable at this level, you can’t lose two scrums and expect to not be under pressure at the other end!
“It’s really frustrating because they cheat at the scrum, lets face it,” added McFarland. “Sometimes they hit hard, sometimes they hit soft, it’s really difficult to deal with.
“But that doesn’t change the fact that we got pushed backwards. I thought our scrum improved as the game went on and we got some decent ball off it at the end.”
The Ulster boss admitted that not scoring during the yellow card period was crucial.
“It was one of the key points certainly. Even still we went in 10-9 up and had we been able to wrestle a bit of control at the start of the second-half it could have been different. Those were key moments.”
Ahead of the final pool game McFarland insisted they had to win against Bath.
“We need a minimum of 20 points and we go back to Kingspan/Ravenhill knowing that stadiums don’t win you games. We have to reassess, have a look at ourselves a bit of self-reflection and understand that we have to win if we’re going to get through.”