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Ulster's European ambitions all but over after defeat to Exeter

The northern province could not withstand a second-half blitz from the Premiership side.

Iain Henderson attempts to escape a tackle.
Iain Henderson attempts to escape a tackle.
Image: Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images

Exeter 31 Ulster 19

Rory Keane reports from Sandy Park

ULSTER’S CHAMPIONS CUP campaign is all but over for another season with Les Kiss’s side suffering a five-try defeat at the hands of Exeter.

The northern province needed at least a victory at Sandy Park to have any chance of qualifying for the knockout stages in Europe but were overwhelmed by a powerful second-half display from the Chiefs. Thomas Waldrom and Michele Campagnaro bagging braces for the home side while England winger Jack Nowell was once again outstanding.

Ulster showed plenty of attacking intent thanks to the mesmeric Charles Piutau, who scored a double on the night, but Ulster’s lack of firepower up front once again came back to haunt them.

All eyes were on rookie scrum-half Dave Shanahan who was making his first start for Ulster. The Dublin-born 23-year-old suggested there may be life after Ruan Pienaar with a hugely accomplished display in the opening 40 minutes.

The diminutive halfback was central to Ulster’s bright start here at Exeter HQ with his sharp passing and pace around the fringes sparking a number of promising early attacks.

The northern province made the perfect start thanks to a scything break from Stuart McCloskey who fed the supporting Sean Reidy to touch down for a try after just two minutes. Jackson failed with his first conversion attempt of the evening but Ulster had made an early statement.

The visitors continued to monopolise possession and, after 20-odd phases of patient play, Trimble ran a sublime line off Luke Marshall to split the Exeter defence. Henderson ploughed on from the next phase before Louis Ludik was penalised for holding on. A let off for the Chiefs but Ulster were looking sharp.

Exeter are a side in a rich vein of form, however, and it wasn’t long before Rob Baxter’s side replied with a fine try. Muscular carries from Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill set the platform allowing Steenson to release the dangerous Michele Campagnaro in the wide channels with a clever screen pass. The Azzurri midfielder sold Trimble an audacious dummy before accelerating past Best’s covering tackle to power over in the corner. Steenson dragged the touchline conversion wide to leave it 5-5 at the end of an engrossing opening quarter.

Ulster did brilliantly to hold up Thomas Waldrom from close-range but the veteran No 8 would not be denied for a second time when he barged over from the ensuring five-metre scrum. Steenson added the extras as Exeter raced into a 12-5 lead.

Exeter Chiefs v Ulster Rugby - European Champions Cup - Pool Five - Sandy Park Exeter Chiefs' Gareth Steenson celebrates after the game. Source: Paul Harding

It continued to rain tries at Sandy Park as quick hands from Shanahan and Jackson released Piutau who left England winger Nowell for dead with some electric footwork to dance over in the left corner. Jackson’s touchline conversion made it 12-12. Honours even after a breathless first-half.

Piutau continued to prove the catalyst for everything good about Ulster. Another searing break and offload from the All Blacks winger freeing up Jackson whose chip ahead just evaded the clutches of Shanahan with the tryline at his mercy.

Exeter’s wide game was causing Ulster huge problems early in the second half as Kiss’ side were forced to defend waves of phase attacks. Young hooker Cowan-Dickie is highly-rated around these parts and he showed why when he ran over opposite number Best during one promising spell of Exeter pressure.

With England winger Nowell and Campagnaro continuing to ask questions in the wide channels. Ulster looked stretched to breaking point and the dam eventually burst in the 50th minute when Waldrom squeezed over for a trademark close-range effort. The ever-reliable Steenson tagged on the extras.

No sooner had Waldrom bagged his brace when Campagnaro completed a double of his own. With Ulster once again stretched, a delightful flick pass from Phil Dollman freed up Ian Whitten who fed Nowell in space. The Chiefs star left Trimble and Piutau for dead before drawing Shanahan to send the Italian racing over in the corner as Exeter secured the try bonus and a 12-point lead heading into the final quarter.

If it was a case of anything Nowell can do, I can do better as Piutau plucked Jackson’s deft kick out of the night sky to race over for his second try on the hour mark. Jackson’s conversion trimmed Exeter’s lead to 24-19. Game on, again.

Both sides emptied their respective benches at the pace of the contest began to take its toll.

Steenson had the chance to seal victory but the Dungannon man hooked a 70th minute penalty wide and right to ensure a frantic finish.

It mattered little though as the Chiefs were awarded a penalty try 60 seconds later after Jackson deliberated knocked down Nowell’s pass with three Exeter players lining up to score in the corner. To add insult to injury, the Ulster No 10 was sent to the sin bin by Romain Poite for his professional foul.

Ulster went searching for a late try but Exeter held firm. A brutal end to a brutal campaign.

Exeter scorers
Tries: Campagnaro [2], Waldrom [2], Penalty try
Conversions: Steenson [3 from 5]
Penalties: [0 from 1]
Ulster scorers
Tries: Reidy, Piutau [2]
Conversions: Jackson [2 from 3]
Penalties:

Exeter Chiefs

15. Phil Dollman
14. Jack Nowell
13. Michele Campagnaro
12. Ian Whitten
11. Olly Woodburn
10. Gareth Steenson (captain)
9. Dave Lewis

1. Ben Moon
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
3. Greg Holmes
4. Mitch Lees
5. Jonny Hill
6. Tom Johnson
7. Don Armand
8. Thomas Waldrom

Replacements:
20. Kai Horstmann for Johnson (54)
18. Harry Williams for Holmes (59)
16. Jack Yeandle for Cowan-Dickie (59)
17. Moray Low for Moon (59)
19. Dave Dennis for Hill (63)
23. Ollie Devoto for Whitten (63)
21. Stuart Townsend for Lewis (67)

Replacements not used:
22. Joe Simmonds

Ulster

15. Louis Ludik
14. Charles Piutau
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Andrew Trimble (captain)
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Dave Shanahan

1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best
3. Ross Kane
4. Kieran Treadwell
5. Pete Browne
6. Iain Henderson
7. Chris Henry
8. Sean Reidy

Replacements
18. Jonny Simpson for Kane (33)
17. Andrew Warwick for Black (45)
20. Clive Ross for Browne (56)
23. Jacob Stockdale for Marshall (60)
19. Franco van der Merwe for Treadwell (63)
22. Brett Herron for Trimble (72)
16. John Andrew for Best (76)
21. Paul Marshall for Shanahan (76)

Referee: Romain Poite [FFR].

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