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Exeter Chiefs 31
Ulster Rugby 19
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Rob Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs side threw themselves a European lifeline by dispatching of visiting Ulster with a five-star showing at Sandy Park.
Having started the day bottom of the pile in Pool 5, all of a sudden the Devonians are now up to second in the standings and in with a potential shout of qualifying for the quarter-finals of this season’s Champions Cup.
For that to happen, they will have to travel to leaders ASM Clermont Auvergne and garner a bonus point victory at the Stade Marcel Michelin. Even then, however, that still may not be enough, should results elsewhere in the competition go against them.
The fact they have this chance, though, is down to this latest stellar showing where two tries apiece from Michele Campagnaro and Thomas Waldrom, plus a penalty try, proved the highlights in a notable victory over the visiting Irishmen.
An early Sean Reidy try, plus a brace for the dangerous Charles Piutau, kept Ulster in contention for a large part of the game. However, it was never enough to thwart the Chiefs, who will head across the Channel in a week’s time with nothing to lose, but everything to gain.
Back in European action after a profitable period in the Aviva Premiership in recent weeks, the Chiefs were looking to finish their home campaign in the Champions Cup on a high note having suffered early losses at Sandy Park to French rivals ASM Clermont Auvergne and Bordeaux-Begles.
Coach Baxter paraded another powerful line-up for the clash against an Ulster outfit, who themselves still harboured hopes of claiming one of the three best runners-up spots after Clermont had earlier in the afternoon already assured themselves of top spot in Pool 5 with a narrow win in Bordeaux.
Buoyed by a healthy contingent of supporters who had made the trip across the Irish Sea, the visitors started the game brightly, taking the lead inside three minutes with the game’s opening try. Centre Stuart McCloskey did the bulk of the damage, picking a lovely line through the heart of the Exeter midfield before offering a simple offload to Reidy to cross with ease.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs craved, but they regrouped well after the early setback and began to assert their own pressure. Jack Nowell and former Ulster favourite Ian Whitten combined well to put Don Armand clear on the right, but the back-rower was unable to hold onto the ball in possession and the chance and went in a flash.
Undeterred, the Devonians continued to press forward and midway through the first half they made the breakthrough with a stunning try. Italian international Campagnaro was the beneficiary, powering his way to the line after Steenson and Whitten, aided by a clever run from Phil Dollman, created the opening for the centre to score.
It was no more than Baxter’s side deserved and they threatened to add a second just minutes later, lock Mitch Lees bulldozing his way towards the whitewash, before his fellow forwards took up the final charge. Unsure of the ground, French referee Romain Poite went upstairs for clarification, the results of which proved unfavourable for the hosts.
That said, the Chiefs had the hammer down and from the resultant five-metre scrum, the Exeter eight pushed and pulled, before Waldrom picked from the base of the scrum, before burrowing his way to the Ulster line. Again, the officials sought clarification, but this time there was no doubt that the ‘Tank’ had found his way over for the score, which was converted by Steenson.
Up in the contest for the first time, the Chiefs looked relatively comfortable as they went about their job – that was until just before the break when Ulster drew level, former Wasps flyer Piutau finishing wide on the left after the visitors had exposed an opening down the blindside of a driving maul. Jackson converted to draw the sides level at the turn
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 12 ULSTER RUGBY 12
On the resumption, it was the Chiefs who were quickest out of the traps, laying a heavy barrage of early pressure on their rivals. Jonny Hill went close down the right-hand side from one particular attack, whilst Steenson opted against a kickable penalty in search of further rewards. Sadly, the decision did not pay off as Ulster happily soaked up the pressure, before winning the turnover and clearing their lines.
It was a momentary let-off for the visitors as back roared the Chiefs again, Luke Cowan-Dickie was an ever-willing runner with ball in hand – and one particular smash on opposite number Rory Best – gave the home faithful a real highlight as he sat the Irish hooker firmly on his backside.
In the ensuing play, the Chiefs worked the ball wide out to Olly Woodburn and then Campagnaro – who aided by a plethora of players – was propelled towards the line at a rate of knots. Although Ulster somehow did enough to hold Exeter at bay on this occasion, the respite was only shortlived as Baxter side hit them with a powerful ‘one-two’.
No.8 Waldrom claimed his second from the resultant scrum, burrowing over for one of his trademark close-range scores; then some scintillating foot work from England star Nowell saw him break clear of three defenders, including Piutau, before drawing the cover and allowing Campagnaro to dive over for his second of the contest.
In Piutau, though, Ulster possess one of the most lethal finishers in world rugby and with the visitors desperate to get back into the match, they turned to the New Zealander to haul them back off the canvas.
Strong pressure from the Irishmen saw them set up camp inside the home 22 and with Poite playing advantage for the Chiefs straying offside, Jackson delivered a clever chip kick in over the head of Nowell to the winger who dotted down with ease for the converted score.
In a matter of minutes the tide of the game had turned once more as now it was Ulster who had the bit between their teeth. Piutau again threatened just before the hour mark with a trademark run, which almost resulted in a score for Dave Shanahan, but thankfully replacement Kai Horstmann was on hand to cover the danger with the visitors poised to strike.
Having survived the threat, the Chiefs settled back into their attacking mode, and although Steenson failed with a long-range penalty, he was on hand to convert Exeter’s fifth try which came ten minutes from time.
The former Ulster playmaker was the lynchpin of much of Exeter’s good work all afternoon and when he darted through a space late on, he watched on as opposite number Jackson cynically batted down his intended pass to the right. It not only ensured the visiting No.10 played no further part in proceedings, but Poite had no hesitation in going between the sticks for the converted penalty try.
It put the icing on the cake for Steenson, who had been left heartbroken by his late drop-goal miss in the corresponding fixture back at Ravenhill last October. This was a sweet, sweet moment for the Dungannon-born marksman, who now will be hoping to shoot down the threat of Clermont and potentially fire his side into a possible quarter-final.
Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell, M Campagnaro, I Whitten (O Devoto 64), O Woodburn; G Steenson (capt), D Lewis (S Townsend 67); B Moon (M Low 60), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 60), G Holmes (H Williams 60); M Lees, J Hill (D Dennis 64); T Johnson (K Horstmann 55), D Armand, T Waldrom. Replacement (not used): J Simmonds.
Tries – Campagnaro (2), Waldrom (2), Penalty Try; Conversions – Steenson (3)
Ulster: L Ludik; C Piutau, L Marshall (J Stockdale 61), S McCloskey, A Trimble (capt, B Herron 73); P Jackson, D Shanahan (P Marshall 77); C Black (A Warwick 46), R Best (J Andrew 77), R Kane (J Simpson 34); K Treadwell (F Van Der Merwe 64), P Browne (C Ross 55); I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
Tries – Reidy, Piutau (2); Conversions – Jackson (2)
Yellow Card: Jackson
Referee: R Poite (Fra)