Fightback is pointless in end for Ulster
Clermont 38 Ulster 19
In the mountainous Auvergne region, Ulster quickly left themselves with one to climb against Clermont yesterday and, despite a second-half fight-back, took no points from their Champions Cup clash.
Having earned a try-bonus in the Belfast clash a week prior, the province travelled to the Auvergne with their European campaign in good health but will now be left to nervously follow other results when the competition resumes next month after being undone by an awful first 30 minutes.
A try from Isaia Toeava and a brace from Nick Abendanon had the hosts fully in control at half-time and Camille Lopez's intercept score to open the second period seemed to end matters as a contest.
A pair of Tommy Bowe efforts, with a mauled score in between, saw hope briefly flicker, but ultimately the province could not find the fourth score that would have brought with it at least the consolation of a bonus-point.
Having played their best rugby of the season a week before against the same opposition, there was little similarity in the fare Ulster offered up in the opening half hour at the imposing Marcel Michelin, even if the game began in exactly the same fashion as in Belfast.
It was a case of déjà vu for the visitors who, just like a week before, found themselves trailing with barely a minute on the clock.
After Pienaar had kicked for touch, Clermont attacked off the lineout with Isaia Toeava bursting onto the ball at pace and stepping around Tommy Bowe to score under the posts.
In a stadium that was already rocking, the locals sensed swift revenge for their Belfast defeat was on its way.
The visitors did have a chance to produce a quick response when Toeava sliced his kick to touch but, after gaining little ground with the maul, Luke Marshall's pass was behind Louis Ludik.
It was a rare opening in a half dominated by the hosts whose harried Ulster into basic handling errors while playing at a pace the province simply couldn't match.
And when they doubled their lead, it came via a mistake from the most unlikely of players.
All Black Charles Piutau has been as advertised during his Ulster tenure thus far but he was careless in possession in midfield here, his intended offload finding only Remi Larmerat.
The French centre needed little encouragement to accept the gift, playing an instrumental role in a move that concluded with his pass to Nick Abendanon producing a try in the corner.
With their tails assuredly tails, it was not long before the hosts inflicted a third score that had Ulster teetering on the brink.
It again came from the English wing Abendanon, and in an almost identical spot to his first, after flanker Chris Henry was pinged in midfield as he tried to disrupt Clermont scrum-half Morgan Parra.
Parra's conversion ensured Ulster were cut further adrift.
The final ten minutes of the half were the best that Les Kiss's men had produced, although it frustratingly brought no reward on the scoreboard.
Stuart McCloskey's drive for the line shook off the lethargy and, even though he was held up over the line, a five metre scrum threatened Ulster's first points of the day.
With an already changed front-row - Kyle McCall was lost to an early hamstring injury and was replaced by Andy Warwick - a penalty in the set-piece at the most inopportune of times ensured Clermont kept their three-score advantage going into the half.
The missed opportunity would loom large at the end of the game. Such a scenario seemed hugely unlikely however, when just one minute after the turn Ruan Pienaar's pass was intercepted by Lopez to grab his side the bonus point.
Clermont lost focus from there, with the quick-fire trio of scores from Ulster sparking hope they could claim two points from a defeat.
It started with a Bowe effort in the corner after Reidy had been held up, while the maul was used to great effect to bring about the second from van der Mer.
When another McCloskey break, where Clermont's tackling left much to be desired, created Bowe's second, the conversion would have brought Ulster within a score. Jackson's effort from the tee was off the mark, however, and a seemingly roused Clermont put their lacklustre 15 minutes behind them.
A straightforward penalty extended the lead to 12 points and, regressing to their first-half state, Ulster struggled to regain possession from there.
When referee Marius Mitrea awarded a penalty try and handed Jackson a yellow card after the out-half slapped a seemingly try-scoring pass to the ground, Ulster's race was run.
And while there remains hope of a last eight spot, this is not a competition that often forgives such near misses.
Clermont: I Toeava; N Nakaitaci, R Lamerat, W Fofana, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; E Falgoux, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili; A Iturria, S Vahaamahina; V Kolelishvili, A Lapandry, D Chouly (capt).
Replacements: J Ulugia (for Kayser,54), T Domingo (for Falgoux, 56), M Simutoga, F van der Merwe, P Yato (for Kolelishvili, 54), L Radosavljevic (for Parra, 70), P Fernandez (for Lamerat, 77) A Rougerie (for Toeava, 56) .
Ulster: C Piutau, T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (capt), W Herbst; P Browne, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
Replacements: R Herring (for Best, 60), A Warwick (for McCall, 18), R Ah You (for Herbst, 50) K Treadwell (for Browne, 50), C Ross (for Henry, 66), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 65), D Cave (for L Marshall, 50), J Stockdale (for Bowe, 71).
Referee: M Mitrea (Ita)