Rory Best's regret as Ulster suffer French backlash
A rueful Rory Best admitted that Ulster's Champions Cup destiny was now out of their hands after they returned from Clermont empty handed yesterday.
A lacklustre start by skipper Best's side saw the hosts lead 28-0 into the second-half, and although Ulster came back with three tries in quick succession, it was not enough to yield any reward from the 38-19 loss.
"It's out of our hands a little bit but if we finish strong we will have a good chance of qualifying. But we're disappointed with the first 45 minutes of that game," said Best.
Director of Rugby Les Kiss said his side had left themselves with far too much to do after an error-strewn opening.
"In the first 30 minutes we gave them seven or eight opportunities and when you do that to a team like Clermont, especially here, they can hurt you," he lamented.
"To a man, we're pretty disappointed to tell you the truth."
Ulster still have two games to play in their pool, at Exeter and home to Bordeaux, and with 10 points on offer they remain very much in contention for a spot in the quarter-finals as one of the best runners-up.
Best echoed the sentiments of Kiss, however, in acknowledging that picking up what would have been a hugely valuable losing bonus point was made a particularly gargantuan task by such a poor start.
"The damage was done in the first-half," said the captain after his side conceded with less than a minute on the clock and saw their line breached twice more before the break.
"We knew we had to come here and start well and keep the ball for long periods of time and frustrate them.
"We are massively disappointed to come away with nothing.
"We expected to win. We prepared well and we knew if we did the things we talked about all week, we had a good chance.
"But we didn't do that at the start and it's cost us a losing bonus point which we put ourselves in a great position to get."
After losing in Belfast just one week earlier, Clermont are now firmly back in control of proceedings in pool five but, sitting on nine points, Ulster will not have given up hope of joining the French outfit in the quarter-finals.
It means another year of nervously watching results in the other pools come the final two rounds but Best is confident his side can still be playing European rugby in April if they finish the pool in strong fashion.
"We conceded turnovers and weren't good enough at the breakdown, we knocked on and gave silly penalties away and when you give a top side like this access into the game, they are going to score tries," he said.
"We'll have a look at this, we go back into the PRO12 next week (at home to Connacht on Friday) but we will be looking to finish strong.
"It's out of our hands a little bit but if we finish strong we have a good chance of qualifying."
Nick Abendanon's first-half brace gave Clermont the springboard to seize control of pool five.
And the English flyer believes this could finally be Clermont's year after falling short on two occasions.
He said: "We say this could be the year every year, but as long as we keep working hard and keep bringing the intensity and physicality we showed today then why not. We know we have the squad to get to get to a final and I'm sure if we get there, then this can be our year."