Racing 92 44 Ulster 12
By Brendan O'Brien, Paris La Defense Arena
Saturday nights in one of the most fashionable haunts Paris has to offer is all well and good but Ulster ultimately returned home to Belfast empty-handed having contributed handsomely to a pulsating Pool 4 European encounter.
The northern province found themselves nine points to the good approaching the half-hour mark but failed to score again while leaking five tries to their ultra-fashionable and suave hosts who reached the final of this Heineken Champions Cup last season.
Ulster arrived in Paris eager to back up their bonus-point win against Leicester Tigers in round one but the futuristic arena in the district of Nanterre just west of Paris made for a challenge unlike anything they had faced before.
The 30,000-capacity ground was maybe a quarter full with an abundance of the locals opting to spend this Saturday evening out in the unseasonably warm October air rather than under the roof of this fantastic, surreal stadium.
The visitors were on defensive mode for a chunk of the opening quarter but kept Racing at bay before launching a brilliant setpiece move off a scrum on their own 22 with Billy Burns sending Jacob Stockdale away and the wing feeding it on to Will Addison.
Ulster had already swapped one 22 for the other by then and Addison kept the momentum going by breaking the defensive line again with some lovely feet, fending off a Simon Zebo tackle and offloading for scrum-half Dan Shanahan to skip over.
A Finn Russell penalty clipped the advantage to four points before the Irish province suffered the loss of No.8 Nick Timoney to a yellow card for a tip tackle on Fabien Sanconnie. They were lucky: Marty Moore lifted the Frenchman by the other leg and could have been binned with him.
Other warning signs flittered across Ulster's screen.
Struggling at scrum and lineout, it was a botched attempt at the latter that actually set Dan McFarland's side up for their second try. Burns was key to it, scrambling to clean up the loose ball and then pinging two delicate chips to the wings to exploit the space.
The first was collected by Craig Gilroy who, frustratingly, failed to offload to Shanahan for a simple try. The second shortly after found Stockdale on the far side and the Six Nations' top scorer earlier this year had ample room in which to do the necessary.
At 12-3, the Racing brains trust was spooked enough to make a significant and early change. Teddy Iribaren, so good against Leinster in last year's European final in Bilbao, was summoned from the bench in place of a fuming Xavier Chaveau after just 25 minutes.
It paid off 'toute suite'.
A spilled ball by Stockdale in his own 22 set up a Racing scrum that sent the Ulster pack wheeling at a rate of knots and that was the cue for No.8 Antonie Claassen to peel off the back and send Iribaren past a stranded Stockdale.
The dose was doubled just four minutes later and it was a poor Ulster lineout that caused all the problems: this time with Juan Imhoff coming off his wing to burst through the midfield and Olivier Klemenczak taking it on again through a poor Stockdale tackle.
Not s good few minutes for the electric winger.
There was a hint of a knock-on to the end of Imhoff's carry but the damage was done. Klemenczak spooled the ball to Wenceslas Lauret – who stole the initial lineout – and the big lock powered through the cover to touch down.
Russell's second conversion made it 17-12 and the Scottish out-half stretched that to an eight-point buffer with a second penalty just before the break. Ulster's early verve was fading fast and Racing turned the screw soon after the interval.
Klemenczak did the damage again, the centre standing up Iain Henderson and Marcel Coetzee in midfield and sending Imhoff over past a stranded Michael Lowry at full-back. Russell added the two and another three within minutes to leave it 30-12 and Ulster staring down the barrel.
Credit to the visitors then that they staunched the bleeding for a decent spell on a fast, artificial track against a side with the crowd energised and their tails up. Had their finishing been better, Ulster could have even dragged themselves back into the game in the final quarter.
Time and again they stitched together penetrative, fluid moves only to squander the opportunity made with a poor pass or line. They paid for it with just over ten minutes to go when Racing broke from their 22 and Teddy Thomas struck for the fourth, bonus-point try.
There was still time for a fifth and it came courtesy of Zebo, the ex-Munster man trotting over in the corner with time and room to spare with four minutes left to add another touch of gloss to the evening in the glitziest of surrounds.
Racing 92: S Zebo; T Thomas, O Klemenczak, H Chavancy, J Imhoff; F Russell, C Chauveau; G Gogichasvili, C Chat, C Gomes Sa; D Bird, L Nakarawa; W Lauret, B Le Roux, A Claassen.
Replacements: F Sanconnie for Le Roux (14-25 and 60); T Iribaren for Chauveau (25); B Volavola for Imhoff (51-58) and for Russell (73); T Baubigny for Chat, V Kakovin for Gogichasvili, C Johnston for Gomes S and J Joseph for Claassen (all 58); L Paris for Klemenczak (66).
Ulster: M Lowry; C Gilroy, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, D Shanahan; A Warwick, R Best, M Moore; I Henderson, K Treadwell; M Coetzee, J Murphy, N Timoney.
Replacements: S Reidy for Timoney and E O'Sullivan for Warwick (both HT); J McPhillips for Burns (46); R Kane for Moore (53); A McBurney for Best and A O'Connor for Treadwell, A Kernohan for Stockdale (all 58); J Stewart for Shanahan (74).
Referee: N Owens (WRU).