European Champions Cup: Ulster 39-32 Clermont Auvergne
|European Champions Cup Pool Five|
|Ulster (22) 39|
|Tries: Marshall 2, Henderson, Jackson, Piutau Cons: Jackson 4 Pens: Jackson 2|
|Clermont Auvergne (18) 32|
|Tries: Yato, Spedding, Abendanon, Chouly Cons: Parra 3 Pens: Parra 2|
Ulster kept their European Champions Cup hopes alive by earning a bonus-point win over Top 14 leaders Clermont Auvergne in a thrilling Pool Five game.
Tries from Luke Marshall, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson put Ulster 22-18 up at the break, with Peceli Yato and Scott Spedding Clermont's scorers.
Marshall's try secured Ulster's bonus point before Charles Piutau's superb score helped extend the lead to 39-18.
Tries from Nick Abendanon and Damien Chouly gave Clermont two bonus points.
Indeed, Ulster had to hang on in the closing six minutes at Kingspan Stadium after replacement prop Rodney Ah You was sin-binned for a high tackle.
Clermont's bonus points mean they are three clear of Ulster at the top of Pool Five but the Irish province remain in contention despite their damaging opening defeat by Bordeaux Begles.
Fly-halves star in exhilarating contest
Both attacks looked capable of scoring tries almost at will during an exhilarating first half.
Clemont fly-half Camille Lopez's artistry was a feature of the opening period as his ability to break at pace and fast hands helped set up Yato's second-minute try and full-back Spedding's 31st-minute score, which put the visitors 18-15 ahead.
But Lopez's opposite number Jackson became even more influential with his delicious flat pass setting up a charging Marshall to score in the seventh minute before a chip and chase yielded his own opportunist 35th-minute score to leave Ulster 22-18 ahead at half-time.
Jackson's half-back partner Ruan Pienaar was instrumental to Henderson's 16th-minute try as the South African reacted to an advantage call from referee Wayne Barnes to hoist a gorgeous crosskick which Tommy Bowe fielded above Spedding before off-loading for the man of the match to score.
The teams swapped the lead on seven occasions in the opening period as Jackson kicked seven points, with Morgan Parra notching eight with the boot for the Top 14 leaders.
Marshall and Piutau tries prove enough for Ulster
Crucially, Ulster were able to maintain their tempo after the resumption as Marshall crashed over for his second try in the 46th minute before Piutau's dancing feet outwitted Spedding and Remi Lamerat after a superb looping pass from Jackson.
Two more Jackson conversions and his second penalty left a possible rout on the cards at 39-18 after 58 minutes but the French giants responded impressively as Abendanon's try was followed by Chouly's 72nd-minute score to leave only seven points between the sides.
Ah You's yellow card two minutes later further increased the pressure on the home side but composed play from Pienaar helped see the game out.
Ulster's director of rugby Les Kiss: "From a performance perspective it was brilliant.
"There were a lot of good things in terms of the outcome but parts of the process were a little bit disappointing as we let [Wesley] Fofana have too much room in that first half.
"That kind of momentum which let them stay in the game was disappointing but I thought in the second half we addressed that and came out and really turned up in that area."
Clermont wing Nick Abendanon: "We needed to come away with points and we got two, though we would have preferred to win.
"Last year we didn't get the bonus points and we left the competition early so we had to get the points here and we did that, and now we're looking forward to the next game with them."
What's next in Pool Five?
Exeter face Bordeaux Begles in Pool Five on Sunday while Clermont will have an immediate chance for revenge in next Sunday's return game with Ulster at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
Ulster: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (capt), W Herbst, P Browne, R Diack, I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
Replacements: R Herring for Best 77, A Warwick for McCall 56, R Ah You for Herbst 61, K Treadwell for Diack 41, C Ross for Ross 74, D Cave for McCloskey 68
Not used: P Marshall, J Stockdale
Clermont Auvergne: S Spedding; D Strettle, R Lamerat, W Fofana, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; R Chaume, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, F Van Der Merwe, S Vahaamahina, D Chouly, A Lapandry, P Yato.
Replacements: Y Beheregaray for Kayser 9, E Falgoux for Chaume 47, C Ric for Zirakashvili 77, S Timani for Vahaamahina 64, C Gerondeau for Yato 56, B Stanley for Lamerat 67, A Raka for Strettle 18
Not used: L Radosavljevic
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU