European Champions Cup Pool 5: Clermont Auvergne 38-19 Ulster
|Clermont Auvergne (21) 38|
|Tries: Toeava, Abendanon 2, Lopez, Penalty try Cons: Parra 4, Lopez Pen: Lopez|
|Ulster (0) 19|
|Tries: Bowe 2, van der Merwe Cons: Jackson 2|
Ulster's hopes of progressing to the knockout stages of the Champions Cup were dealt a major blow as they lost to Pool Five leaders Clermont Auvergne.
Nick Abendanon built on Isaia Toeava's early try by scoring twice to give Clermont a 21-0 half-time advantage.
Camille Lopez's touchdown secured a bonus point, but Ulster mounted a stirring comeback with tries by Tommy Bowe (2) and Franco van der Merwe.
A penalty try ensured that Clermont remain in control of the pool.
Franck Azema's side boast 17 points from their four fixtures, with Bordeaux-Begles and Ulster tied on nine as they battle to finish second in the group.
Clermont, beaten by Toulon in the final of Europe's premier club competition in 2013 and 2015, face Bordeaux away in their next game in mid-January, with Ulster travelling to Exeter.
Clermont get off to flying start
The odds were stacked against Ulster repeating last week's 39-32 home win over the Top 14 leaders in Belfast as Clermont had lost just one of their last 27 home European fixtures and had not been defeated by non-French opposition at the Stade Marcel Michelin since losing to Sale in 2008.
The home side were quickly out of the traps as they won possession from a lineout and Wesley Fofana provided the flat pass for All Black full-back Toeava to carve his way through the Ulster midfield and score beside the posts after just 58 seconds.
Winger Abendanon then eluded a desperate attempt at a try-saving tackle by Charles Piutau to complete a fine flowing move by diving over in the corner in the 18th minute, Parra successfully executing his second conversion of the game from an acute angle.
Backed by a vociferous home crowd, the French side remained dominant and extended their lead when, with referee Marius Mitrea signalling an advantage, Lopez exquisitely floated a left-foot cross-kick to Abendanon, who collected and touched down to score.
France scrum-half Parra added the extras but was off-target with a penalty attempt soon after, and although Ulster exerted pressure on the hosts' line at the end of the first half, they were unable to turn their superiority into points.
Ulster, who came close to winning on their last visit to Clermont four years ago, suffered a further setback just after the break when a Pienaar pass was intercepted and Lopez ran from inside his own half to cross the line, Parra converting for 28-0.
With their unbeaten home record this season seemingly intact, the intensity went out of the French side's game and the television match official ruled that Sean Reidy had been held up just short of the line.
A strong Ulster scrum led to Pienaar delivering the ball to Bowe on the right wing, the Ireland international scoring the first of three Ulster tries within eight minutes.
Second row van der Merwe drove over after a maul and the Irish province moved to within nine points when Stuart McCloskey broke through the Clermont defence and provided the pass for Bowe to score his second try.
Paddy Jackson could not add the additional two points which would have brought his side into bonus-point territory, and Lopez's well-struck penalty gave Clermont some much needed breathing space.
The victory was assured when the referee awarded a penalty try and sin-binned Jackson for a deliberate knock-on, which prevented a clear scoring opportunity.
What they said
Ulster hooker Rory Best: "We gave them an early try and got the crowd into the game and then our mistakes cost us another couple of tries. If you give chances to a quality side like them, they are going to score.
"We talked at half-time about trying to own the second half and clawed our way back, but we are massively disappointed. We came here hoping to win.
"Our failure to perform in the first 20 minutes probably cost us a losing bonus point and a couple of turnovers in the last five or six minutes were also costly."
Clermont Auvergne: 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
Replacements: J Ulugia, T Domingo, M Simutoga, F Van Der Merwe, P Yato, L Radosavljevic , P Fernandez, A Rougerie
Ulster: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik; P Jackson, P Marshall; K McCall, R Best (capt), W Herbst; P Browne, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, R Ah You, K Treadwell, C Ross, P Marshall, D Cave, J Stockdale.