Ulster did more than hold their own in the first period, carving out the best two try-scoring opportunities, and should have run in at half-time at least three points ahead.
Clermont, whose own progression to the next round hinged on victory in the tie, started at 100 miles per hour, but Ulster did well to weather the storm in the opening five minutes. However, with Dan Tuohy sinbinned on 10 minutes for an early tackle on Morgan Parra after the scrum-half's quickly-taken tap-penalty, they were right back under the cosh. Parra kicked his team ahead as a result of Tuohy's misdemeanour, but Ruan Pienaar equalised moments later after Johann Muller had been illegally taken out at the line-out.
Parra helped himself to another penalty on 20 minutes, and with Tuohy back in play with only a three-point deficit incurred during his absence, Ulster came so very close to taking the lead, Craig Gilroy latching onto an errant Aurelien Rougerie pass and only prevented from crossing the whitewash thanks to a last-ditch tap tackle from Lionel Faure. More disappointment followed for the visitors, Pienaar's long-range penalty just before the half-hour mark spinning narrowly wide of the posts.
Ulster, now controlling the tie, again only just failed to grab a try two minutes later, with Andrew Trimble held up in the right-hand corner and John Afoa similarly halted with the recycled ball, but Pienaar slotted over a subsequent penalty for obstruction, and the tie sat precariously at Clermont 6 Ulster 6.
Then, after another narrowly off-course Pienaar penalty, Stefan Terblanche brought the half to a close with an audacious long-range drop goal attempt which saw the ball drop literally inches short of the Auvergnian crossbar.
Half-Time Score Clermont 6 Ulster 6
The second half opened with the award of two Ulster penalties from successive scrums, the second of which Pienaar elected to kick for goal, shunting his side into their first lead of the match at Clermont 6 Ulster 9. However an Ulster lapse in concentration let Parra straight back in with a penalty of his own to restore parity.
As the hour mark approached and Clermont began to show signs of frustration, Pienaar dispatched a 55th-minute penalty, and Ulster made sure the lead lasted a little longer this time thanks to dogged defence against persistent Clermont pressure. When the try did come on 63 minutes, through replacement forward Ti'i Paulo after multiple phase play, Parra kept his nerve to convert and edge his side four points in front at Clermont 16 Ulster 12.
With the Frenchmen penalised again for popping up early in a 70th-minute scrum, Pienaar kept up his excellent kicking return and reduced the arrears to a solitary point, but this was neutralised moments later by another penalty from his opposite number.
The score sitting at Clermont 19 Ulster 15 with three minutes to go, Ulster launched a final attack in a last attempt to secure a Ravenhill quarter-final, but this evaporated as Rory Best's put-in from a 79th-minute line-out was adjudged not to be straight.
Ulster's losing bonus point, then, sees them finish the group stage on 20 points together with Clermont, who top the pool thanks to their superior try-scoring record. The quarter-final, therefore, will be played on the road, with the exact destination only to be determined after tomorrow's final Round Six matches - and a quick return to the Parc Des Sports Marcel Michelin not out of the question.
Full-Time Score Clermont 19 Ulster 15
Ulster: (15 - 9) S Terblanche; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar;
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (c), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg;
Replacements (16 - 23): A Kyriacou, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson, W Faloon, P Marshall, N Spence, A D'Arcy
ASM Clermont Auvergne: (15 - 9) L Byrne; S Sivavatu, A Rougerie (c), W Fofana, J Malzieu; D Skrela, M Parra;
(1 - 8) L Faure, B Kayser, C Ric, J Pierre, N Hines, G Vosloo, J Bardy, J Bonnaire;
Replacements (16 - 23) T Paulo, V Debaty, D Kotze, J Cudmore, A Lapandry, K Senio, B James, R King
|ASM Clermont Auvergne Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|