Clermont Auvergne 23-29 Ulster: Visitors deny Clermont fightback to claim famous win

By Michael MorrowBBC Sport NI
McCloskey and Cooney
Stuart McCloskey and John Cooney moved Ulster into a 16-point lead in the first half
Heineken Champions Cup Pool A: Clermont Auvergne v Ulster
Clermont Auvergne (10) 23
Tries: Penaud 2 Cons: Hanrahan 2 Pen: Hanrahan
Ulster (19) 29
Try: McCloskey, Timoney Cons: Cooney 2 Pens: Cooney 4

Ulster fended off Clermont Auvergne's fightback to claim a famous win in their Champions Cup opener at Stade Marcel-Michelin.

Nick Timoney's 68th minute try and a monstrous John Cooney penalty sealed the victory for the visitors, who led by 16 points at one stage courtesy of Cooney's boot and a Stuart McCloskey try.

Irish fly-half JJ Hanrahan inspired Clermont's response with Damian Penaud scoring twice as the hosts moved into a one-point lead with 18 minutes left.

But Ulster were not to be denied and finished stronger to get their European campaign off to a dream start, while Hanrahan kicked a penalty with the final act of the game to ensure Clermont claimed a losing bonus point.

The magnitude of Ulster's win is reflected in the fact that each of the six previous meetings between the sides have yielded home wins.

Dan McFarland's team will hope to make it two wins from two when they host Northampton next week, with the Saints reeling from their heavy defeat by Racing 92 in their European opener on Friday.

Youngsters shine as Vermeulen makes debut

The debut of Springbok Duane Vermeulen fresh out of Covid-19 isolation, dominated the pre-match headlines for Ulster as they travelled to Clermont following a deflating defeat against Ospreys a week ago.

While the World Cup winner played his part in a dynamic showing from the pack it was Ulster's youngsters that led their fight, with James Hume and Michael Lowry backing themselves to run from deep from the very start of the game.

The positive approach was rewarded, as repeated Clermont indiscipline at the breakdown allowed Cooney to kick three penalties in the opening 15 minutes.

Ulster's tails were up with Clermont still struggling to find their feet, and the visitors nearly found the opening score when Hume and Lowry combined brilliantly to send Cooney over the line, only for the scrum-half to be held up.

Duane Vermeulen
Vermeulen only had one training session with the squad prior to his debut having contracted Covid-19 following his arrival in Belfast

The deserved try did eventually come as, playing with an advantage, Ulster kept ball in hand as Cooney fed McCloskey on a short line for the big centre to crash over.

Clermont had offered next to nothing before the half hour mark but did eventually make their way into Ulster territory and found a response through a magnificent Penaud finish, diving forward to ground Tani Vili's dink over the top.

Having put themselves on the scoreboard Clermont were still struggling to limit their penalty count and eventually found themselves a man down with Jaco van Tonder sent to the sin-bin for a tip-tackle on Robert Baloucoune that saw the Ireland wing forced off in a major blow for Ulster, who arrived with just two backs on their bench.

Hanrahan shines in comeback but Cooney comes up trumps

Having joined Clermont from Munster in the summer, Hanrahan returned to face Irish opposition and put in an impressive display with the fly-half instrumental in Clermont's recovery.

After pushing an early second-half penalty just wide he showed his ability in the open field with a line-break that set Penaud free on the right. The French international still had plenty to do but executed a perfect chip and chase as the hosts closed in on Ulster's lead.

Hanrahan's penalty after another line-break saw Clermont hit the front for the first time in the match and with the momentum now firmly on their side they appeared favourites to claim the win.

Penaud scores
Damian Penaud scored two brilliantly taken tries to turn the game in Clermont's favour

But Ulster came back once more, with Hume and Lowry again central to their attack as the former burst through the Clermont defence before the latter's offload to Timoney was batted down by Cheikh Tiberghien.

Having consulted the TMO, referee Wayne Barnes saw Timoney had collected the ball once it hit the ground and drove over for a try, and awarded the score while sending Tiberghien to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on.

Leading by six Ulster sought to stretch their lead out to two scores with a penalty from inside their own half, with Cooney stepping up to send a nerveless kick between the posts and seal a memorable victory.

Clermont Auvergne: Tiberghien; Penaud, Barraque, Vili, Raka; Hanrahan, Viallard; Ravai, Beheregaray, Slimani; Van Tonder, Vahaamahina, Iturria, Yato, Lee.

Replacements: Boudou, Falgoux, Ojovan, Lanen, Dessaigne, Bezy, Michet, O'Connor.

Ulster: Lowry, Baloucoune, Hume, McCloskey, McIlroy, Burns, Cooney; Warwick, Herring, O'Toole, O'Connor (Capt), Treadwell, Rea, Timoney, Vermeulen.

Replacements: Andrew, McGrath, Kane, Carter, Jones, Reidy, Doak, Moore.

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