Impressive Ulster ignite Europe bid with famous victory away to Clermont

Ill-discipline aplenty in bad tempred affair as Ulster win in France for first time in six years

Clermont 23 Ulster 29

Ulster secured a first victory on French soil in almost six years as they stormed to a famous win over Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin.

Tries from Stuart McCloskey and Nick Timoney, as well as 19 points from the boot of John Cooney, got the northern province off to the perfect start in the Champions Cup on the day that Springbok Duane Vermeulen made his debut for the side.

While JJ Hanrahan and Damian Penaud almost pulled the hosts back into it after Dan McFarland’s side had lead 16-0 in the first-half, Clermont’s ill-discipline cost them dear in an ill-tempered game that ended with an accusation from replacement prop Ross Kane that Alivereti Raka had made contact with his eye.


It was two yellow cards that would cost Les Jaunards dear, the second proving especially costly at a time when they seemed to have fought their way back onto the front foot.

Disrupted by Covid within the camp during the week, Clermont started poorly on a ground where Ulster’s record previously read played three, lost three.

There were fewer than 30 seconds on the clock when Clermont were caught offside in front of the posts with Ulster opting for the straightforward penalty to take an early lead.

It was in contrast to their hosts who, having won a penalty straight off the subsequent restart, went for the corner only to misfire at the lineout.

A scrappy opening from the Top 14 side was punctuated by ill-discipline and Cooney would double Ulster’s advantage with another central effort from the tee after six minutes.

With James Hume really taking the game to the hosts, things almost worsened for Clermont after a sharp exchange of Ulster offloads but Marcus Rea, getting the start after an impressive string of bench cameos, was held up over the line.

The boot of Cooney kept things ticking over, nudging the score out to 9-0, before 15 minutes from the break they eschewed the tee in favour of their maul.

Herring, who the local crowd had wanted to see binned for a high tackle just prior, hit Vermeulen and while the forwards couldn’t rumble over, Clermont weren’t going to stop a charging McCloskey at close range.

Having barely had a sniff of the line, Clermont would belatedly get on the board just before the turn thanks to a moment of brilliance from wing Damian Penaud.

By far their brightest spark in the first half, there was certainly something speculative about the cross-field kick sent his way on penalty advantage by Tani Vili but the Les Bleus star read it all the way to gather and finish in one motion.

Ulster would suffer a further blow before the break with Robert Baloucoune lost to a shoulder injury having been tackled into the ground by Jacobus Van Tonder. The South African would be sent to the sin bin, and Cooney’s flawless kicking form continued, but with a 6:2 split on the bench Dan McFarland was forced into a backline reshuffle that saw centre Stewart Moore fill in on the wing.

In the last action of the half, former Munster out-half JJ Harahan cut his side’s deficit to 16-9.

Despite beginning the second half a man down, Clermont came out on the front foot but crucially fumbled a five-metre lineout forward when taking the points would have made it a one score game.

When restored to a full complement, although it was Thibaud Lanen who took the field rather than Van Tonder, Hanrahan would take aim at the posts from metres in from the touchline but couldn’t quite bring in the testing attempt.

But he would be central to Clermont’s second try of the day when recognising a mismatch and breaking well from midfield. There was still plenty of work for Penaud to do but the expertly measured chip and chase was executed to perfection.

And this time there was no mistake from Hanrahan either, his conversion cutting the arrears to just two points as the final quarter loomed.

Three minutes later, they’d lead for the first time when a scrum won against the head put Ulster under real pressure with Hanrahan punishing the subsequent offside from in front of the posts.

The set-piece, which always figured to be an area strength for Clermont but was relatively even early on, was swinging decidedly in Clermont’s favour.

Enter James Hume. It was the centre’s scything break that shifted the momentum and, while there was an element of confusion about the score that followed, it was just the sort of decisive action required.

While he was hauled down, Alan O’Conor was quickly there to link the play and get the ball to Lowry whose pass was knocked down by fullback Tiberghein.

Timoney scooped up the ball and scored but a scrum was awarded to Clermont with Wayne Barnes believing it had been the Ulsterman who had knocked on.

As O’Connor pleaded, the TMO intervened with the result not just a yellow card but a try for Ulster with the video showing the alert Timoney had crossed before Barnes had blown his whistle for the perceived knock-on.

The controversial incident seemed to take the wind from Clermont’s sails and soon after Cooney made it a two-score game with a penalty from inside his own half after he himself had won a breakdown penalty.

While Penaud nearly produced one more moment of magic, replacement Nathan Doak got back to snaffle the pass and deny the hosts the try, although JJ Hanrahan did at least provide the scant consolation of a losing bonus point with the last kick of the game.

Clermont: C Tiberghein; D Penaud, JP Barraque, T Vili, A Raka; JJ Hanrahan, K Viallard; P Ravai, T Beheregaray, R Slimani; J v Tonder, S Vahaamahina; A Iturria (capt.), P Yato, F Lee.

Replacements: T Lanen (for van Tonder, 46), S Bezy (for Viallard, 51), E Falgoux (for Ravai, 59), C Ojovan (for Slimani, 59), M O'Connor (for Barraque, 63), L Dessaigne (for Lee, 69), B Boudou (for Beheregaray, 74), G Michet (for Tiberghein, 78).

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: S Moore (for Baloucoune, 35), G Jones (for Vermeulen, 50), J McGrath (for Warwick, 52), S Reidy (for Rea, 62), S Carter (for Treadwell, 62), R Kane (for O'Toole, 68), N Doak (for Lowry, 75)

Not used: J Andrew

Scoring sequence: 2mins: Cooney penalty, 0-3; 6: Cooney penalty, 0-6; 13: Cooney penalty, 0-9; 25: McCloskey try, Cooney conversion, 16-0; 34: Penaud try, Hanrahan conversion, 7-16; 36: Cooney penalty, 7-19; 40: Hanrahan penalty, 10-19; Half-time; 58: Penaud try, Hanrahan conversion, 17-19;

Yellow cards: Van Tonder, 36; Tiberghein, 68.

Referee: W Barnes (Eng)

Player of the match: J Cooney (ULS)