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Ulster Rugby 19
Exeter Chiefs 18
Mark Stevens at the Kingspan Stadium
In the city which built the ill-fated Titanic, Exeter Chiefs were left with that sinking feeling in this dramatic European Champions Cup encounter at the Kingspan Stadium.
Paddy Jackson’s late drop-goal condemned Rob Baxter’s side to back-to-back defeats in the competition and robbed Gareth Steenson of a happy homecoming back in his native Northern Ireland.
Steenson plundered all 18 of Exeter’s points on the night, landing five penalties and a drop-goal, in another accomplished display from the Dungannon-born marksman.
However, he could not deliver the final nail into his former club’s coffin as his second drop-goal – with just a minute remaining on the clock – agonisingly skimmed past the post.
It was a tough pill to swallow for Steenson – who along with another fella from these parts, Ian Whitten – were hoping to get Exeter’s escapades in Europe’s top club competition back on track.
In what was a pulsating clash from start to finish, Ulster prevailed in the end thanks to the boot of Jackson, who along with his match-winning drop-goal, also landed four penalties and converted Sean Reidy’s first half try.
Undone in Round One by a very slick ASM Clermont Auvergne, the Chiefs were hoping this latest engagement across the Irish Sea would prove more fruitful.
Ahead of kick-off, head coach Baxter made three changes in personnel, bringing in Jack Yeandle at hooker for the injured Luke Cowan-Dickie, while behind the inclusion of James Short on the left wing meant former Ulsterman Ian Whitten was shunted into a new midfield pairing alongside the recalled Henry Slade.
Ulster, meanwhile, made four changes to their side undone at Bordeaux-Begles the week previous. Three of those changes came in the pack where there were starts for Kyle McCall, Pete Browne and Roger Wilson, whilst in the back division former Wasps star Charles Piutau returned on the left flank.
With victory imperative for both sides if they were to keep alive their European aspirations, it was little wonder that the game started at a frantic pace. The home side set the early tone with some fast hands and lively raids, but the Chiefs were more than up for the challenge, repelling them with some ruthless, bone-crunching hits.
However, it was Ulster who broke the deadlock on five minutes when Baxter’s side were penalised for straying offside in midfield. It allowed fly-half Jackson his first shot at goal and the Irish international did not disappoint, plundering a 30-metre kick with relative ease.
Home joy proved short-lived, though, as within two minutes parity was restored as the Devonians made the most of their first foray into enemy territory. Strong work by the Exeter eight saw them drive deep into the Ulster half and when Reidy strayed offside, cute work from Dave Lewis at the base of a ruck saw him cannon the ball off the openside flanker to create the penalty.
Steenson, a former Ulster Academy product, made the most of the opportunity, drilling a sublime kick between the sticks much to the joy of the travelling Tribe.
With little to choose between either side, Ulster looked to regain the initiative when they positioned themselves deep inside the Exeter 22. A series of penalties – which included a team warning for the Chiefs – saw them threaten the try-line, but some defiant defence from Baxter’s side saw them not only keep their rivals at bay, but at the same time turn over crucial possession.
Having repelled the threat, the Chiefs slowly began to crank up the gears and they were rewarded just before the half hour mark when Steenson slotted his second penalty of the night after the hosts were adjudged to have come in from the side by French referee Alexandre Ruiz.
But just as Ulster had failed to hold onto their slender advantage earlier in the contest, so the Chiefs did exactly the same, conceding a try just three minutes later.
The dangerous Piutau caused the initial havoc with some dazzling footwork – and although he was halted by a combination of Short and Lachlan Turner – Ulster were quickest to react, creating the opening for Reidy to over with relative ease for the converted score.
HALF TIME ULSTER RUGBY 10 EXETER CHIEFS 6
On the resumption, Ulster were again first to show as they looked to add to their advantage during the opening exchanges. Again, the Chiefs fought valiantly in defence, holding them at bay until the 48th minute when Jackson struck once more, this time punishing Slade for straying offside in midfield.
Down by seven, the Chiefs needed to summon a response of sorts quickly if they were to keep themselves alive. Thankfully, they did so as superb work from Olly Woodburn at the restart saw him pluck the ball out of the night sky, set off on a canter towards the posts, the fruits of which eventually resulted in a penalty for Steenson.
With both sides running their benches, the flow of the game petered out momentarily as first Jackson saw a difficult penalty chance from wide on the right fail to hit the target, while a series of pick-and-go raids from the Englishmen threatened to cause damage, only for the final execution to fail at the crucial moment.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to press forward and when Turner, Jack Maunder and Woodburn combined to deadly effect, the Chiefs grabbed yet another Steenson penalty to put just a point between the two teams. But quite how the hosts failed to get a yellow card for their blatant indiscretion – bang in the so-called ‘red zone’ will remain a mystery to all but the French arbiter.
The kicking duel between Messrs Jackson and Steenson showed no sign of abating entering into the final ten minutes, the duo trading blows like two sparring partners in a boxing ring.
The drama, however, was far from finished and with four minutes on the clock, the Chiefs used their pack to punch their way to within strike distance of the Ulster posts. Maunder delivered a razor-sharp pass to Steenson and he made no mistake, dissecting a sublime drop-goal between the upright to send Exeter’s travelling contingent into raptures.
Ulster regrouped quickly, restarting immediately to put the Chiefs back on the defensive. Initially all seemed good for Baxter’s team as they cleared their lines, but Piutau’s subsequent kick return, followed by a plethora of home drives, created the space for Jackson to respond in kind with his own drop-goal.
The Kingspan duly erupted with two minutes on the clock left, but having regathered possession back once more, it was again the turn of the Chiefs to threaten late on. The forwards again did their part, positioning themselves deep inside the Ulster half. Maunder once more fed Steenson, who some 35 metres out, dropped for goal.
Initially his hand rose in the air – an image reminiscent of that at Bristol in 2010 – but right at the death, the ball drifted on the wind, sailing within a lick of paint past the posts.
In a split second the hopes and dreams of a memorable homecoming were gone, not only for Steenson, but for the Chiefs, who know the uphill struggle to qualify in this season’s competition has gone from Haytor to that of Mount Everest.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble (capt, C Gilroy 67), L Marshall (T Bowe 78), S Olding, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (R Herring 67), R Ah You (R Kane h/t-45, 48-51, A Warwick 78)); P Browne (A O’Connor 12-19, 21), F Van der Merwe; I Henderson (C Ross h/t), S Reidy, R Wilson. Replacement (not used): P Marshall.
Try – Reidy; Conversion – Jackson; Penalties – Jackson (4); Drop-Goal – Jackson
Chiefs: L Turner; O Woodburn, I Whitten (O Devoto 63), H Slade, J Short; G Steenson (capt), D Lewis (J Maunder 63); M Low (C Rimmer 48), J Yeandle, H Williams (T Francis 48); M Lees (J Hill 63), G Parling; K Horstmann, J Salvi (D Dennis 51), T Waldrom. Replacements (not used): E Taione, S Hill.
Penalties – Steenson (5); Drop-Goal – Steenson
Referee: A Ruiz (Fra)