'It was in our grasp': Why Ulster coach Dan McFarland was so disappointed by defeat in Clermont
Clermont 29 Ulster 13
There are few greater challenges in European rugby than beating Clermont in their own back yard, yet Ulster will know they'll wait for quite some time to have a better opportunity than they did on Saturday afternoon.
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A gulf was exposed when they were last in this part of the world, 28-0 down only minutes into the second half before the hosts let up over the final quarter.
At that point in the game over the weekend, Ulster led 10-9, their only concern that they hadn't ensured their superiority on the pitch was accurately represented by their points tally.
When a win would have guaranteed a quarter-final spot with a game to spare, and gone a long way towards ensuring the tie was played in Belfast, from the first whistle Ulster stormed out of the blocks.
Indeed, they should have had a first score before the stragglers in the raucous and record crowd had filtered into their seats. Settling instead for a John Cooney penalty, it wasn't long before the same man was darting across the whitewash after a smart interchange between Sean Reidy and Marty Moore.
Things were never quite so slick again, though, as turnovers undermined their efforts even when Clermont were reduced to 14 men, the lack of execution a sticking point for head coach Dan McFarland.
"We're bitterly disappointed," he said. "It was a game that we had control of in the first half but we didn't make our pressure pay when we should have done. In the second half it slipped from our grasp.
"You get your moments when you have chances and if you don't take them in a place like Clermont then that's it, you're done.
"We're right in the middle of one of the most challenging places in Europe to come and play. They had a record crowd here, everything's bouncing, they're coming in firing.
"Lets not underestimate the challenge that we faced but on a couple of occasions we didn't execute to the level that we needed to."
Having failed to impress in Belfast and then again over the course of the first 40 minutes on Saturday, an improvement from Clermont seemed inevitable and so it came to pass.
Using a dominant scrum, the expert spoiling of Alexandre Fischer and the powerful running of Alivereti Raka, Les Jaunards were good value for their two tries, Ulster dealt a harsh lesson in the clinical edge required to pull off such feats as a home quarter-final.
In the end, they were left feeling not so much that the Top 14 side had won the game, but that they had lost it.
"They're a good team but we're a good team, we just didn't play anywhere near our potential and that's the most disappointing thing," said McFarland. "We're in a position where we could have controlled that game but we didn't.
"We let them get away from us. It was in our grasp."
Failure to win from such a promising start, especially when managing only a solitary penalty over the game's final 71 minutes, naturally raised questions about Ulster's management of the match.
On three occasions in the first half Ulster sent penalties to the corner rather than taking the points seemingly on offer, and on all three occasions they coughed up possession rather than finding the breakthrough they craved. The most glaring opportunity came with an overthrown line-out five metres from the line moments after Morgan Parra had been sent to the sin-bin, starting a frustrating patch where the province could find no way through against 14 men.
Despite the end result, and the recent struggles of his side's line-out, McFarland defended the decision-making processes of his skipper Iain Henderson.
"They scored 29 points," he said to illustrate just why his side seemed to believe that only five or seven-pointers would get the job done.
"The way I look at it is, when they're down to 14 men and you kick to the corner, if you can't score tries you're not a good enough team to win in Clermont. It's as simple as that.
"If we take advantage of those opportunities and score, which we're more than capable of doing, we'd have had a much better chance of going on and winning the game.
"If we'd have kicked three points there, maybe... but I don't see Clermont as a team that folds under three extra points of pressure."
Clermont's late flurry - scoring 10 points in the final 10 minutes - ensured a first occasion this season where Ulster took no return from a game but, in truth, the lack of a losing bonus point at this stage would seem to have little bearing on their quarter-final picture.
Still boasting a record of four wins from five games, Ulster know that if they beat Bath on Saturday at Kingspan Stadium (3.15pm kick-off) then they are guaranteed a place in the last-eight for the second season in a row regardless of what happens elsewhere.
"If we can win next week then we're in the quarter-final, that's the equation," added McFarland.
"The bottom line is that we want to play play-off games."
Ulster will no doubt be sweating over the availability of full-back Will Addison for that game and those beyond after he departed the pitch on Saturday after only 50 minutes.
The four-times-capped Irish international left the Stade Marcel Michelin on a pair of crutches, although McFarland said he was unsure of the severity of any injuries.
Addison had only just returned from a four-game ban, while he has endured a horrible 12 months of injuries.
The prospects seem better for Marty Moore, though, with the prop hobbling off in the second half but appearing to suffer no long-term damage.