Belfast Telegraph

Ulster master the conditions to make it back-to-back European wins with win over Clermont

John Cooney celebrates scoring a try against Clermont (INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
John Cooney celebrates scoring a try against Clermont (INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
Former Ulster winger Tommy Bowe clashes with Clermont full-back Nick Abendanon the last time the two sides met in Belfast (INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

Better sides than Ulster would have denied Clermont a bonus point at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night, but it won't take away from what is now an excellent position in Europe for Dan McFarland's side.

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Two wins from two, eight points in the table and with a double-header against Harlequins coming up in two weeks' time, Ulster will be fairly confident that a spot in the Champions Cup knockouts is theirs to be had.

Marcell Coetzee and Jordi Murphy were excellent in the back row, John Cooney produced a fine solo moment for what proved to be the game-winning try and Ulster were the better side in a game played in dire conditions.

The defence was once again exceptional in making 87 tackles and keeping the French giants quiet throughout, limiting their danger men to the tune of just 201 metres gained across the 80 minutes and allowing just the one clean break.

But at the same time, problems continue to persist. Errors and turnovers hang over them like a shadow, not helped by the conditions, admittedly, but still down to their own design more than anything else.

That, combined with a scrum that engaged reverse gear for all of the second half and a penalty count that hit 12 in the second half, will all be of concern to McFarland regardless of a result that is entirely positive in terms of the pool and as a statement.

It is, at the end of the day, six wins from Ulster's opening eight games as well, and the winning culture continues to bleed through this side despite not wholly impressing in every game thus far.

The decision to start Greig Laidlaw and Jake McIntyre ahead of Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez on the Clermont side perhaps showed that the French had other priorities, and they never adapted to the conditions, particularly Nick Abendanon under the high ball.

Indeed, once Ulster went ahead after just a minute when Cooney knocked over a penalty, it already seemed like the Auvergne men were playing severely on the back foot, and as the game went on so it proved.

It should have been even better for the hosts when Stuart McCloskey took a chip over the top from Billy Burns and sent Cooney through, the scrum-half having Murphy and Jacob Stockdale on his shoulder but instead choosing to go himself and knocking on with the line begging.

Laidlaw and McIntyre weren't helping the visitors by having a dour night behind the scrum, but Ulster were controlling proceedings through their watertight defence and surprising forward dominance, which yielded the first try from a maul in the 18th minute, Murphy claiming it.

It took Clermont until three minutes before the interval to get their first score on the board, Laidlaw dinking over a penalty, while danger man Alivereti Raka, showing all his mercurial pace, nearly had a try when he got onto a kick in behind from McIntyre, only to knock on.

But in the second half, any hopes of Ulster putting the game to bed safely went out the window whenever their discipline failed them and Clermont introduced their replacement front row just five minutes in.

Cooney's game-winning score was the anomaly rather than the rule, the scrum-half spotting a gap down the blindside, chipping over the top of Raka and stabbing the ball through to dive over for the score in the 63rd minute.

Laidlaw had pulled back a penalty just prior to that, but that was the last he and McIntyre were required as they were hauled adrift for Parra and Lopez, and from there the French side tried to mastermind their comeback through their dominant set-piece.

While they wouldn't get the win, they would at least steal a point from the fixture when referee JP Doyle went under the posts for the penalty try after a third scrum infringement from the Ulster front row on their own line.

Two wins from two for Ulster though. They'll take that in a heartbeat.

Here's how the game unfolded:

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