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Ulster came into round five with confidence that they could topple Clermont Auvergne in their home fortress, however Clermont’s strength shone through as they ran out 20-3 winners in the second half after trailing 10-9 at the break.

The confidence from Dan McFarland’s men was evident from the start with Stuart McCloskey making the opening break and offloading to Jacob Stockdale down the left wing. The move really should have ended in the first try after just a minute to play as McCloskey had a four-on-one opportunity seven metres from the Clermont line but instead of passing sought contact allowing Franck Azema’s men time to regroup. The first of a few missed Ulster chances yesterday afternoon.

Ulster settled for a penalty which was cancelled out by a Camille Lopez drop goal a couple of minutes later. John Cooney scored his sixth Champions Cup try of the season to restore the lead and it was clearly visible that Ulster had their hosts rattled when Lopez skewed a restart straight into touch.

The gainline was continually being broken in the first half with Ulster getting on the outside of the shooting defender in the 13 channel. Still, Clermont were able to pilfer the ball with John Ulugia, Sebastien Vahaamahina and Rabah Slimani popping up with turnovers. Alexandre Fischer is one of the many new faces in the French extended squad and showed his worth with three turnovers yesterday after replacing Arthur Iturria after 23 minutes. Fischer was a major threat for Ulster yesterday and was always able to get over the ball and slow it down.

Unsurprisingly, Ulster controlled possession and territory in both halves. McFarland’s men were unable to capitalise on Morgan Parra’s yellow card on 21 minutes after turning down two shots at goal in favour of the corner. The resulting lineouts were both lost as the sin bin period ended 0-0. There was a question whether Parra prevented a try scoring opportunity however Matthew Carley seemed convinced that a penalty and yellow card was a worthy enough sanction.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but turning down three points has been a factor in Ulster’s season to date with great success. Indeed Dan McFarland had no criticism of his side’s decisions in his post-match comments.

The second half was all one-way traffic in Clermont’s favour. They came out a different side and limited Ulster’s gainline success with a quick line speed. Ulster made mistakes, but under the relentless pressure inflicted on them by Clermont it was always inevitable.

Alivereti Raka scored their first try nine minutes after the restart while Morgan Parra’s conversion made it a nine point game in favour of the hosts. The deficit was narrowed to six points momentarily when Cooney slotted a penalty with 15 minutes to go.

While it was only six points, Ulster didn’t look like scoring a try in the second half and were playing for a losing bonus point. Laidlaw restored the nine point advantage with eight minutes remaining before George Moala bundled over to seal the win for his side.

You could say Ulster deserved a losing bonus point for their efforts in the first half but they came up short against an excellent Clermont side who are the best team in the group.

As it stands:

  Match points Points difference
Leinster 24 105
Racing 22 71
Exeter 22 62
Toulouse 22 56
Clermont 20 86
Ulster 17 15
Saracens 14 30
Gloucester 14 21
Northampton 14 -29
Glasgow 12 -12
Munster 11 0

Key: green highlights pool winners with home quarter final; yellow highlights pool winner with away quarter final; blue highlights runners up with away quarter finals; no colour highlights sides missing out on a quarter final spot.

Ulster have a buffer inside the best runner up spots and are likely to finish as the best runner up therefore securing a match against the third ranked top side.

Munster’s defeat at Racing coupled with Sarries’ failure to pick up a try bonus point at the Ospreys has helped Ulster’s cause as Dan McFarland will know that a win will seal at least a sixth seed spot in the next round.

Now for a few permutations…

Can Ulster top their group?
Yes, if they better Clermont’s result in London by four points. IE Ulster defeat Bath without a try bonus point and Harlequins beat Clermont and the visitors don’t get a bonus point or Ulster beat Bath with a bonus point and Clermont lose with either a losing bonus point or a try bonus point.
Can Ulster top their group and get a home quarter final?
As only three of the four pool winners get a home quarter final, Ulster would have to pip Clermont to top spot as mentioned above, and then rely on either Racing 92, Exeter or Toulouse losing with no match points against Saracens, La Rochelle or Gloucester. This would leave Ulster level with 22 points with either side, therefore Ulster would need to ensure they have a better points difference at the end of the weekend. It is highly unlikely that Ulster will gain a home quarter final as Exeter host La Rochelle and Toulouse host Gloucester while Racing 92’s points difference would require a 56-point swing.
Are Ulster guaranteed a knockout spot?
No. If they lose against Bath and Sarries win at home to Racing, Gloucester win away to Toulouse and Northampton win away to Lyon. Sarries and Gloucester’s points difference is better than Ulster so that would bump the province down to eighth seeds while Northampton would need to record a bonus point win unless Bath inflict a heavy defeat on Ulster. Similarly Glasgow could come into the equation if they hammer Sale Sharks away from home.

I suspect by the close of play next weekend, Ulster fans will be booking flights to Exeter or more likely, Toulouse.

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