Clermont book quarter-final berth
January 21, 2012
Clermont Auvergne wing Sitiveni Sivivatu chases a kick ahead
© Getty Images
Clermont Auvergne booked a place in this season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals with a hard-fought 19-15 victory over Ulster at the Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday.
Les Jaunards were far from their best but had just enough to edge out their Pool 4 rivals, who were already assured of a place in the last eight but now face the prospect of an away tie. A second-half try from replacement hooker Ti'i Paulo proved to be the crucial score with scrum-half Morgan Parra steering his side home and extending their unbeaten run at their formidable stadium to an incredible 37 games.
Ulster had threatened to follow up their outstanding victory over Leicester in the last round by taking the scalp of another European giant but were guilty of not making the most of their opportunities in the opening half. Scrum-half Ruan Pienaar kicked his side into a 9-6 lead early in the second period but Clermont's superior physicality eventually reaped a rich reward.
An early burst of speed from Clermont winger Sitiveni Sivivatu had the vociferous home crowd on their feet but a forward pass from centre Aurelien Rougerie served as a let off for the visitors. Ulster, looking for their first Heineken Cup win in France, continued to struggle to contain their rivals with the Clermont forwards finding it all too easy to make big gains through the heart of the Irish side's defence.
Ulster weathered the storm but their attempts to claim a foothold in the game suffered a setback when lock Dan Tuohy was shown a yellow card for denying Parra the chance to take a quick penalty. The result was Parra's first points of the game and a deserved lead for the Top 14 side, but their advantage was short-lived with a territorial game soon rewarded by Pienaar's first penalty of the game. The tit-for-tat exchange would continue with Parra's second penalty before Tuohy returned to the fray.
Sivivatu was then fortunate to escape sanction for taking out Ian Humphreys after some exceptional play took the fly-half out of the clutches of Parra, while a more textbook tap tackle from prop Lionel Faure accounted for Ulster wing Craig Gilroy a few moments later when he found time and space inside the Clermont 22. Ulster's willingness to go toe-to-toe with the hosts brought further reward at the next scrum but this time Pienaar's effort slipped the wrong side of the uprights.
A terrible clearance from Clermont fullback Lee Byrne then gifted Ulster another chance to redress the balance with Ferris and prop John Afoa driving close in the shadow of the posts. The ball was swiftly recycled and while Clermont's scramble defence denied wing Andrew Trimble a score in the corner, Pienaar was on target with a penalty to level the scores. Clermont went close to an immediate reply with winger Julien Malzieu spearheading a sweeping break but Ulster's defence held firm and they could have had the lead at the break had a long-range penalty from Pienaar or a speculative drop attempt from veteran fullback Stefan Terblanche hit the target.
With the game in the balance, the opening score of the second-half was always going to be crucial and some significant pressure at the breakdown and the scrum eventually allowed Pienaar to give Ulster the lead for the first time in the game. The score sparked changes for Clermont with playmaker David Skrela making way for Brock James, whose first contribution was to pull his side level once more after some good work from fellow replacement Vincent Debaty.
Ulster continued to frustrate Clermont and that tension was ratcheted up a couple of notches when Pienaar edged his side ahead a few minutes later from the kicking tee. But back came Clermont with a big tackle required to stop Byrne in his tracks just short of the Ulster line, and priceless possession was lost when lock Nathan Hines was penalised for holding Ferris and No.8 Pedrie Wannenburg.
Clermont were soon knocking on the door again with Ulster forced to dig deep, but it was not enough as Paulo burrowed over from close range after a strong run from centre Wesley Fofana had split the defence. Parra's conversion gave his side a little more breathing room but Ulster were far from beaten. Another impressive scrum turned the screw and an offside penalty enabled Pienaar to add to his tally and make it a one-point game with 10 minutes left in the contest.
Clermont's response was predictable, with their forwards driving deep before Wannenburg was penalised for his attempts to conjure a turnover and Parra made him pay. A penalty handed Ulster one final chance to upset the hosts but their precision failed them when it mattered most with hooker Rory Best's crooked throw spotted by referee Dave Pearson.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery
Monday Maul takes in retirement talk, England reshuffles, France's unfair advantage and Scotland's communication breakdown