Ulster miss out on Euro bonus
Ulster maintained their unbeaten record in the Heineken Cup with a 27-16 win over Montpellier - but the result wasn't quite enough to clinch them a place in the quarter-finals.
Knowing a bonus-point victory would secure them at very least a spot as one of the two best runners-up, the Irish province were only able to score three tries against depleted Pool 5 opponents.
Robbie Diack and Ruan Pienaar both touched down in the first half for the hosts and John Afoa added another after the break, but despite desperate late pressure a crucial fourth was not forthcoming.
The result means Ulster could now need to get something from their final group game away at Leicester, who will be hoping to secure five points themselves from their trip to Italy to face whipping boys Benetton Treviso on Saturday.
With Montpellier already out of contention and with the majority of their first-team squad left in France, a heavy home win looked a banker at Ravenhill. The visitors, however, clearly had not read the script.
Eric Escande booted them ahead and their early lead could have been greater had the scrum-half had a little extra on a long-range attempt, while fly-half Enzo Selponi saw a drop goal drift wide to the right.
Having seen Pienaar uncharacteristically miss his first shot at the posts, Ulster finally got their first points in the 24th minute thanks to a superbly-weighted kick from Paddy Jackson.
Seeing there was nothing on in front of him the fly-half switched the play from right to left, picking out Diack to perfection. The flanker caught the ball in full stride before holding off Lucas Dupont to roll over in the corner.
Poor Dupont was caught out again soon after, the winger failing to deal with Pienaar's kick over the top to present the scrum-half with an easy try that he also converted, making it 14-3.
Perhaps the quick-fire double made Ulster a little over-confident; a turnover in their own territory allowed flanker Tchale Watchou to rumble over on the right.
Esconde added the conversion as well as a further penalty, cancelling out a Pienaar effort to make it 17-13 at the break. Further efforts from the two kickers opened up the second half, maintaining the four-point gap.
It seemed Ulster had been given a fortunate break in their bid for a maximum haul when Pienaar's punt over the top bounced kindly for Afoa to collect and finish with the kind of burst of pace not normally seen from a prop.
The conversion pushed the game out of the reach of Montpellier who then strangely decided to go for the posts with a penalty despite trailing by 11, and even then Escande missed.
Still, the Top 14 side fought bravely through to the final whistle, none more so than Pierre Berard as he somehow managed to hold Pienaar up over the line. When Michael Allen put a foot into touch as he score on the left wing, Ulster must have known it wasn't going to be.