Ulster's big guns blast out Euro warning
Ulster 39 Clermont 32
When they needed it most, Ulster's big names were back to their best to lift the province to a performance that few would have predicted over the course of the last two months.
Since topping the PRO12 after a five from five start to the season, Les Kiss's side had looked lethargic throughout October and November.
As a combination of injuries and international commitments robbed them of many of their shining lights, they slumped to four losses in five before rebounding to beat Cardiff to begin December.
While the likes of Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne and Marcell Coetzee are still on the sidelines, with the rest of the key men back in harness to face Clermont on Saturday, even the pacesetters of the Top 14 came out second best.
Les Jaunards arrived in Belfast to much fanfare, with Kiss even saying before the game that their team-sheet would "put the fear of God in you".
And while they more than played their own part in the thrilling 39-32 contest, especially the sparkling Wesley Fofana who the hosts simply couldn't handle, it was Ulster's heavy hitters who made the more telling contributions.
With Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry - Ulster's only forwards with more than a handful of Irish caps - in the same starting pack for the first time in six months, the unit matched their physically imposing visitors in the tight exchanges.
And it was a similar case in the back line where Paddy Jackson was back from Ireland duty to direct the flow of Ulster's game, working so well once again in tandem with his scrum-half Ruan Pienaar.
Given the presence of such a French force, and one who rendered Ulster a home underdog, there was something of the old Heineken Cup about the occasion as the crowd roared, tension mounted, and tempers flared.
The helter skelter nature of the first-half saw seven lead changes and, while Ulster were in front for the entire of the second 40, the frantic finish maintained plenty of drama right to the end.
The hosts had spoken about how Clermont's games yielded points aplenty for both sides but, even still, Franck Azema's men taking the lead after just 67 seconds following more restart woes must have caused at least a momentary flash of panic.
Luke Marshall, who crossed three times in Europe last season, responded quickly with the first of a brace and so a pattern was established.
Ulster produced scores of real quality only for problems such as restarts and missed tackles - which indeed came at a frequency of one out of every five - to prove their undoing.
Pienaar's cross-kick, coming with penalty advantage on his side, and the aerial claim by Tommy Bowe to set up for Iain Henderson, required precise execution from all parties but there was nothing measured about what followed for Clermont's second.
There were fine hands from the visitors to put Scott Spedding away in the corner, but Ulster had more than contributed having lost a line-out and been turned over in the scrum in the preceding minutes.
Jackson's skill with the boot for Ulster to re-take the lead would have been right at home in Windsor Park, and Marshall's second after the turn ensured Ulster at least a try scoring bonus.
Having banked four tries just once in the first three months, it's already been managed twice in December.
The hosts were in the ascendancy and, with double World Superbike Champion Jonathan Rea having been paraded at half-time, Charles Piutau produced a champagne moment of his own to build a substantial lead. After Best - skipper again only due to Trimble's injury and Rob Herring's place on the bench - went for the corner when a successful penalty would have created a gap of two scores, the ball was worked from the line-out to the Kiwi full-back.
Still with three men between him and the line, there was plenty to do but such is his talent, he made it look straightforward.
Having spent the early games of his Kingspan career creating openings for others, Piutau has now scored three in his last four.
A Jackson penalty moved Ulster 21 points clear but the excitement was far from over.
Tries from Nick Abendanon and Damien Chouly had Ulster rocking, with a yellow card for replacement Rodney Ah You not helping matters, but they somehow held on, sealing victory after Spedding knocked on with the clock red.
Chouly's try did, however, bring with it two bonus points and the final quarter will surely receive further scrutiny should that return ultimately prove crucial in the pool.
It was the second two-point swing in an Ulster game during this campaign after what should have been a losing bonus for the visitors became a fourth try for Bordeaux in the Stade Chaban Delmas back in October.
That, though, will be a discussion for later in the competition. For now, their hopes are very much alive.
ULSTER: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (c), W Herbst; P Browne, R Diack; Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy.
Replacements: R Herring (for Best, 76), A Warwick (for McCall, 60), R Ah You (for Herbst, 60), K Treadwell (for Diack, 40), Clive Ross (for Reidy, 73), Paul Marshall, Darren Cave (for McCloskey, 67), Jacob Stockdale
CLERMONT: S Spedding; D Strettle, R Lamerat, W Fofana, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra, R Chaume, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili; Flip van der Merwe, Sebastien Vahaamahina; D Chouly (c), A Lapandry, P Yato
Replacements: Y Beheregaray, E Falgoux (for Chaume, 46), C Ric (for Zirakashvili, 73) , S Timani (for Vahaamahina, 63), C Gerondeau (for Yato, 55), L Radosavljevic, B Stanley (for Lamerat, 66), A Raka (for Strettle, 16)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (Eng)
Man of the match: Iain Henderson (Ulster)