PA Sport Staff
Ulster got their Champions Cup campaign off to a strong start with a 29-23 victory over Clermont in France.
It was Ulster’s first-ever win at the Stade Marcel-Michelin, with Stuart McCloskey and Nick Timoney scoring their tries and John Cooney kicking 19 points. Damian Penaud crossed for a brace of tries for Clermont and JJ Hanrahan contributed 13 points from the kicking tee.
Ulster totally dominated the first quarter of the game, with Clermont’s ill-discipline costing them dearly. The visitors opened the scoring, with Cooney nudging over a penalty from short range.
There was some great interplay between Ulster’s backs and forwards as Robert Baloucoune raced clear before linking up with Michael Lowry, who was brought down just short of the line. But Ulster’s pressure forced Clermont to infringe, with Cooney doubling their lead from the kicking tee.
Cooney knocked over a third penalty after 15 minutes to give the visitors a 9-0 lead.
Clermont were struggling to contain Ulster’s back-line, with powerful inside centre McCloskey causing havoc. And he claimed Ulster’s first try as he powered his way over from short range after some powerful carries from the visiting forwards, with new signing Duane Vermeulen in the thick of it.
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But just when Ulster seemed to be running away with it, Clermont hit back with a perfectly-weighted cross-kick from Gabin Michet gathered and touched down by Penaud.
After a long consultation with the television match official (TMO), referee Wayne Barnes awarded the try. Hanrahan added the extras, but Clermont were soon reduced to 14 men when Jacobus Van Tonder was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Baloucoune.
Cooney and Hanrahan exchanged three points meaning Ulster held a strong 19-10 lead at the interval.
Clermont were a lot more physical and disciplined after the break and made it a one-score game with a superb try.
Former Munster outside-half Hanrahan broke clear before releasing Penaud on his outside. The France wing chipped the ball ahead and showed tremendous pace to win the foot race and score, with Hanrahan adding the extras to make it a two-point game.
All the momentum was now with Clermont, and they very nearly scored a third try when Hanrahan made a 60-metre break, with Ulster forced to infringe at the breakdown.
Hanrahan kicked Clermont into the lead for the first time in the game in the 63rd minute.
Ulster came right back at Clermont with a terrific break from James Hume putting them deep into the opposition 22.
Full-back Lowry attempted to offload the ball to McCloskey just five metres short of the try line, but Clermont’s Cheikh Tiberghien deliberately slapped the ball forward before Timoney picked it up to score.
Cooney added the extras and Tiberghien was sent to the sin bin for the deliberate knock-on.
Cooney made it a nine-point game with a successful penalty from inside his own half to seal a famous win for Ulster. Hanrahan kicked a late penalty to give Clermont a losing bonus point.