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Relentless Ulster find a way to grind down French resistance

Ulster 18-13 Clermont

John Cooney makes a break
John Cooney makes a break
On the run: Jordi Murphy is pursued by Peceli Yato
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

A wet and windy night for the visit of a big French side - if ever there was match made in heaven for the Kingspan Stadium this was it.

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Nothing seems to stir the soul of Ulster fans more than ensuring a heralded Top 14 outfit hit the departures lounge of Belfast International glad to be leaving and once again so it proved.

A sodden Clermont looked a different side than the one who shredded Harlequins a week ago and, as nervy as the endgame proved, the northern province seized control of the Heineken Cup's Pool 3 with a victory forged from a try in each half from Jordi Murphy and John Cooney.

Two from two in Europe for a first time since 2013, fittingly it began and ended with telling interventions from Cooney.

With Peceli Yato in at the side, there was an early opportunity for him with the boot and last week's match-winner got off to a confident start from the tee to take the hosts to a lead after just two minutes. 

While the Ulster scrum has been improving at a rate of knots in recent weeks but missing the heft of injured Wallaby Sam Carter on the tighthead side for this one, the first of the night brought a quick blast of JP Doyle's whistle.

Danger was averted when Alan O'Connor, Carter's replacement in the engine room, got up to disrupt the lineout and force a knock on. Another soon followed when the clearing box-kick of Nick Abendanon was blocked with Louis Ludik in the face of the English full-back.

Just the sort of picture that warms the collective heart on a cold European night with the crowd roaring their approval at what had been a harsh welcome to the French visitors.

The quick start almost brought a try too but, a promising position went begging with knock-on following linebreak.

Head coach Dan McFarland warned last week that his side's error rate in possession was unsustainable at this level and sure enough spilled passes remained a fixture of the opening exchanges.

Sensible then to cut out the middle man.

Another Marcell Coetzee turnover - the South African now firmly established as one of the province's top breakdown operators of recent years - saw the resulting penalty sent to the corner and after one stutter was negated by another penalty, the rolling maul reaped the reward of the game's first try via the finish of Jordi Murphy.

For all the star names on show, Clermont's attacking threat had been limited in response, although with a quarter gone Ulster were thankful that a TMO intervention chalked of a Raka effort for a knock-on in the build-up.

The visitors would register before the turn though, a second penalty concession at the set-piece allowing Scottish international Greig Laidlaw bisect the posts.

Ulster responded in kind through the boot of Cooney, his penalty catching the inside of the post on the way through and the game's next try felt crucial in dictating how the second-half would play out.

There was no easing of the rain after the restart and there were only seven minutes gone when Franck Azema called for the heavy duty replacements befitting of such an arm wrestle. In conditions hardly becoming of attacking rugby, errors only increased as things wore on.

Marty Moore, like Burns fresh off a contract extension during the week, grabbed one turnover and was unlucky not to get another at the breakdown, but missed knocks to touch were an unwelcome addition to Ulster's play that robbed two opportunities to get the maul going again.

Offered a reprieve, Clermont had the opportunity to make it a one-score game but spurned their own chance when Laidlaw's second penalty attempt of the night veered off target.

There remained a nagging feeling that this was a game that just one more try would have killed off long ago.

So fine are the margins in this competition that one win let slip through the fingers can have disastrous consequences. This one, and how Ulster would view the pool after two rounds, could still have gone very much either way as it dragged into the final quarter.

Laidlaw made no mistake with his next penalty and the sound of nerves jangling could be heard rattling around Kingspan Stadium.

Moments later they were replaced with the terrace's familiar refrain of "Cooney, Cooney."

Ulster's talisman remains the man for the big moment and on a night when one wondered just how the openings would be fashioned, it was another rabbit from his hat.

Faced with the intimidating frame of Raka in front of him once he broke to the blindside, a delicate chip over the French international's head produced a race to the line from which there was only to be one winner.

Having showed his footballing skills to secure his try against Bath in round one, again the scrum-half proved adept at handling the unpredictable bounces as he dribbled across the whitewash before diving on top of the ball.

A moment of magic when his side needed it most, increasingly the former Connacht and Leinster man's stock and trade, there was still plenty of work to do, especially after Ulster's creaking scrum finally reached breaking point and surrendered a penalty try.

Like last week the game ended with the threat of late sucker-punch, again Ulster snuffed out the threat.

ULSTER: W Addison; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns; J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor, I Henderson (capt); S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee. Replacements: A McBurney, K McCall (for O'Sullivan, 66), T O'Toole (for Moore, 67), K Treadwell (for O'Connor, 57), N Timoney (for Reidy, 61), D Shanahan, B Johnston (for Burns, 68), C Gilroy.

CLERMONT Auvergne: N Abendanon; P Betham, I Toeava, G Moala, A Raka; J McIntyre, G Laidlaw; E Falgoux, J Ulugia, R Slimani; P Jedrasiak, S Timani; P Yato, A Iturria, F Lee (capt). 

Replacements: M Tadger (for Ulugia, 47), L Uhila (for Falgoux, 47), D Ziravashvili (for Slimani, 47), T Lanen (for Jedrasiak, 30), L Dessaigne, M Parra (for Laidlaw, 64), C Lopez (for McIntyre, 47), A Naqalevu (for Abendanon, 47)

Referee: JP Doyle (ENG)

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