McLaughlin laments missed chance but remains optimistic as Ulster march on
Clermont 19 Ulster 15: Brian McLaughlin's eyes said more than his words could ever have. Standing in the bowels of Stade Marcel Michelin after the game, the Ulster coach's frustration was obvious.
His side's defeat by Clermont ultimately meant that Ulster must travel to Thomond Park to face Munster in the Easter weekend quarter-final, but despite his disappointment at not winning Pool 4 - which would have given them a home tie - McLaughlin tried to remain upbeat on Saturday.
"We really wanted to back up last week's performance against Leicester to show that we're proper contenders in this competition and can be talked about in the same breath as Leinster, Munster and Toulouse," he said.
"All credit to our guys, I feel they have done that.
"Now what we've got to do is make sure that no matter where we go, we're going to turn in another performance. But it's got to be better again because we are more than capable of going further in this competition."
Nevertheless, McLaughlin's pride in his team's performance on French soil will be tinged with thoughts of what might have been.
"Our scrum again was good and we showed that we can create. We've just got to realise that whenever we're away from home, every opportunity has to be taken," he said.
"Our collisions, our contact areas, all those little things have improved immensely. We can improve them further -- and we'll need to as we progress in this competition.
"But we're in a quarter-final and the way we played backed up what we did last week. We're proud of that, though disappointed with the result. But this is Clermont. They're an exceptional team with exceptional fighting spirit."
When the French media congratulated the Ulster coach on his side's physical strength, he replied: "That's something we've worked very hard on. We reckon we've a smashing pack of forwards who are a match for anybody. And our backs created, but unfortunately we just couldn't get the ball over the line."
Clermont's record of not losing at home in any competition stretches back to November 2009 yet Ulster took the game to them - even with lock Dan Tuohy sin-binned after 12 minutes -- and they had chances, two very good ones in the first half in particular.
However, a ropey pass in one instance and too many passes in the other cost them dearly.
Morgan Parra and Ruan Pienaar both struck two penalties each as the sides went into the break tied at 6-6.
The pair traded penalties again in the second half before Pienaar put the visitors 12-9 ahead again after 57 minutes.
But Ti'i Paulo's try 15 minutes from time gave Clermont a decisive advantage and despite Pienaar bringing Ulster back to within a point, Parra's final penalty ensured Clermont finished top of the table with a better head-to-head record in terms of tries scored over the two matches played.
Ulster captain Rory Best realised his team had come so close to getting their first win in France, but echoed McLaughlin's positive sentiments.
"Once the Six Nations is finished, we'll have all guns blazing for the quarter-final. At a very difficult place to play, we've just fallen short. We've got to make sure in our away quarter-final we do the simple things right, do them well," said Best.
Clermont Auvergne - L Byrne (R King 70); S Sivivatu, A Rougerie, W Fofana, J Malzieu; D Skrela (B James 46), M Parra; L Faure (V Debaty 46), B Kayser (T Paulo 52), C Ric (D Kotze 64); J Pierre (J Cudmore 67), N Hines, G Vosloo, J Bardy (A Lapandry 56) J Bonnaire.
Ulster - S Terblanche; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys (P Marshall 61), R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg (W Faloon 74).
Ref - D Pearson (England)