Two tries from Tommy Bowe weren't enough for Ulster
Ulster felt the full force of a Clermont Auvergne backlash this afternoon at the Stade Marcel-Michelin as the runaway pool leaders exacted revenge for last weekend's defeat in Belfast with a blistering five-try victory.
Les Kiss's side had already conceded four tries without response before a shift up the gears brought three scores in quick succession - two from Tommy Bowe and one from Franco van der Merwe - but, crucially, neither a losing nor a four-try bonus point as Clermont closed out the match with a penalty try.
At the end of Round Four Ulster now sit third in the pool on nine points, just behind Bordeaux-Begles thanks to an inferior points difference.
Only one change from the starting XV which defeated the French side last weekend saw van der Merwe return to the second row in place of Robbie Diack, unavailable through injury. Last week's try-scorer Charles Piutau started again at full-back, with Bowe and Louis Ludik on the wings and Luke Marshall partnering Stuart McCloskey in the centre.
Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar continued in the half-back slots, while up front, the unchanged front row of Kyle McCall, Rory Best and Wiehahn Herbst packed down in front of van der Merwe and Pete Browne, with Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Sean Reidy in the back row.
Clermont, meanwhile, made wholesale personnel changes with no fewer than five new faces coming into the starting lineup - full-back Isaiah Toeava, winger Noa Nakaitaci, prop Etienne Falgoux, lock Arthur Iturria and flanker Viktor Kolelishvili all getting the nod.
The match started in the same explosive fashion as it had last Saturday in Belfast. All Black Toeava made his presence felt within 60 seconds, ripping through a shell-shocked Ulster midfield and ghosting past a wrong-footed Bowe for the try beneath the posts, converted by Morgan Parra.
Ulster responded well with pressure deep in the French half, four minutes' possession only going wrong with a misplaced pass from Marshall which Ludik, arriving at pace, was unable to take without knocking on.
Then an Alexandre Lapandry turnover on half-way just before the end of the first quarter saw Clermont expose a gap on the Ulster right flank with McCall down on the turf receiving treatment, Abendanon ducking into the corner to grab his second score in as many games.
His third followed within five minutes, as the English exile picked off Camille Lopez's pinpoint crossfield kick unchallenged for an easy run to the line, before Parra added his third conversion.
A long-range penalty from the scrum-half could have topped up the Clermont tally to 24 on the half-hour, but the kick spun just wide for the solitary blot on an otherwise flawless first half from the Frenchmen. Ulster, to their credit, closed out the period chipping away at the Clermont 10-metre line, grinding out a lineout from which Browne did well to heave his way to the line before being held up.
Half-Time Score Clermont 21 Ulster 0
The second half could not have started any worse for the visitors, as Lopez timed his interception of Pienaar's pass from the lineout to perfection, and ran three-quarters of the field just out of the reach of the chasing Pienaar and Best for the killer bonus-point try.
The entry of Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell and Darren Cave for Herbst, Browne and Marshall on 50 minutes went some way to reinvigorating Ulster, whose best attack of the game thus far saw Reidy just held up by Abendanon and Iturria as he slid towards the corner flag from the kick through.
The Number Eight's tail was up, however, and he pinched the ball at the very next Clermont scrum, feeding Pienaar whose looping pass fell to Bowe for the try in the corner, topped up by Jackson's conversion.
Ulster came again on the hour mark, pushing on from a rolling maul as Rob Herring replaced Best, van der Merwe eventually grounding the ball amid a mass of bodies, and Jackson again adding the extras.
Better still came five minutes later, McCloskey taking route one to the line with four Auvergnats swept aside in his wake before recent entrant Paul Marshall found Bowe at close range for the winger's second try of the afternoon.
Jackson's conversion attempt veered just wide to leave his side still nine points adrift, soon bumped back up to 12 courtesy of a Lopez penalty.
With at least a four-try bonus point now a realistic target for the Ulstermen, a fantastic central run from Ludik gained valuable ground in the first instance, but Clermont put up a hefty resistance and eventually cleared their lines, even notching a final score by way of a penalty try after Jackson had been binned for a deliberate knock-on as last man as the French closed in down the right wing.
Full-Time Score Clermont 38 Ulster 19
Clermont Team (15 - 9) Isaiah Toeava; Noa Nakaitaci, Remi Lamerat, Welsey Fofana, Nick Abendanon; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra
(1 - 8) Etienne Falgoux, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Arthur Iturria, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Viktor Kolelishvili, Alexandre Lapandry, Damien Chouly (c)
Replacements (16 - 23) John Ulugia, Thomas Domingo, Mickael Simutoga, Flip van der Merwe, Peceli Yato, Ludovic Radosavljevic, Pato Fernandez, Aurelien Rougerie
Ulster Team (15 - 9) Charles Piutau; Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar
(1 - 8) Kyle McCall, Rory Best (c), WIehahn Herbst, Pete Browne, Franco van der Merwe, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy
Replacements (16 - 23) Rob Herring, Andy Warwick, Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Jacob Stockdale