Adam McKendry at Kingspan Stadium
However, they will be confident after defeating another French giant in Clermont Auvergne twice in the pool rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup.
Five tries and a commanding display for 70 minutes at Kingspan Stadium showed how much Ulster enjoy the European battle as they toyed with Jono Gibbes’ men, taking them apart piece by piece in all aspects of the game.
It was a maul double for Rob Herring, and a third try in two games for Mike Lowry. Duane Vermeulen scored his first Ulster try, as did winger Robert Baloucoune.
Just as much as the first 70 minutes were commendable, the closing ten should be cause for concern.
With a comfortable lead, Ulster looked to slack up, allowing all three of Jacobus van Tonder, Alivereti Raka, and Judicael Cancoriet to score, making it a three-point game and setting up a tense conclusion.
At that point, Vermeulen and Herring had been withdrawn, as had the great Billy Burns, and all head coach Dan McFarland had to worry about was finishing second.
They will be a handful for any team if they play like they did for most of the game. As the only team in Pool A to win all four games this season, Lowry and player of the match James Hume will know they have a target on their backs.
Ulster were tardy by their own standards. Unlike at Franklin’s Gardens a week previously, the Kingspan Stadium supporters would have to wait an extra minute for their team to score.
The hooker broke off the back of a maul that was slowly rumbling towards the line, forcing his way through a double tackle and over in the corner.
The first half lacked both goals and discipline. By half-time, the visitors led 8-5 in penalties, with Ulster paying the price for infringements in the red zone.
Before Lowry added to his legendary status with another superbly taken try, the scrum-half had scored twice to put the French team ahead just before half-time.
In a two-on-one with Cheikh Tiberghien at the line, Lowry chose to go over himself, with his opposing number too intent on Ethan McIlroy on his outside.
However, Ulster’s discipline kept Clermont in it, and Parra stroked over two more penalties to put the visitors two points ahead shortly after the half-hour mark.
When Clermont themselves got in trouble with referee Luke Pearce two minutes before the break, Raka made little effort to roll away after making a tackle on the line to slow down the ball and saw yellow, and Ulster scored from the subsequent line-out off the penalty.
After missing his first two conversion attempts, Nathan Doak converted his third attempt, and he was the first to score after the restart, converting an early penalty, giving them the additional point they deserved.
Vermeulen scored it, muscling over from a yard after Lowry’s drive down the wing saw him just miss, but it was a length of the field effort that got them there as the hosts fought their way from their own 22 up to just beyond the Clermont red zone, still with the extra man.
Finally, Clermont brought on their big guns Camille Lopez and Damian Penaud, but it was in vain. Baloucoune dived over close range courtesy to a fantastic feed from Burns for Ulster’s sixth.
When Cancoriet set Van Tonder over the line with 10 minutes left, the widespread sense was that it was nothing more than a consolation for Clermont, but none could have predicted the mayhem that would follow.
Tiberghien then slashed through the Ulster defensive line into the Ulster 22, where Raka cantered over into the corner for his second of the night.
But when it came down to stealing probably the greatest comeback in European rugby history, Clermont couldn’t do it. In the final 75 seconds, the hosts controlled possession and David Shanahan blew the final whistle by sending the ball off the pitch.
It might be Toulouse in the final 16, or someone else. But one thing is certain: Ulster will fancy their chances.
Herring (2), Lowry, Vermeulen, Baloucoune
Doak (2), Burns Pen
Van Tonder, Raka, Cancoriet
ULSTER \s(15-9) 1-8 Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Sam Carter, Kieran Treadwell, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen (Greg Jones 55).
CLERMONT (15-9) Cheikh Tiberghien; Marvin O’Connor, Jean-Pascal Barraque, Tani Vili (Damian Penaud 52), Alivereti Raka; JJ Hanrahan (Camille Lopez 58), Morgan Parra (Kevin Viallard 68); (1-8) Etienne Falgoux (Daniel Bibi Biziwu 58), Yohan Beheregaray (Etienne Fourcade 58), Ra
Then, with four minutes left, Cancoriet steered a maul over, putting the pressure on.