Paddy Jackson's dramatic late drop goal keeps Ulster's Champions Cup hopes alive
Ulster 19 Exeter 18
It is probably not so much a hard, but soft Brexit for Ulster as they stumbled to the closest of victories over Exeter at an often muted, and exasperated Kingspan Stadium tonight.
It was fairly quiet until the final throes of the game when first Exeter Chiefs skipper Gareth Steenson looked to have won it for the visitors with a dropped goal three minutes from the end to add to his five earlier penalties. No so. Up stepped Paddy Jackson a minute later to match that effort. Then the clock had barely moved on 30 seconds when Steenson had a similar chance to win the game, but his dropped goal attempt skimmed past the right upright. Whew!
Jackson finished with 14 points with Sean Reidy grabbing the only try of the game. But despite lording the possession, and territory, Ulster just did not have the wherewithal to punch home their advantage or use some extremely talented three-quarters who were just itching to do some damage. Any time All Black Charles Piutau got the ball, you could feel the crowd holding their breath in anticipation. But possession behind the scrum was neither quick nor in the right area. Before the kick-off there was a ghostly one-minute’s silence in remembrance of Munster’s head coach Anthony Foley who died so tragically last week.
Ulster, normally fairly slow starters, were immediately in the driving seat and going through the gears with alacrity, and although Jackson’s early penalty was quickly matched by his opposite number Steenson, they put the foot to the board in the opening 15 minutes and look to immediately ignite the game.
But despite, three quick successive five-metre line-outs, and with rain starting to spill out of the heavens, Ulster stalled after a handling error saw them loose quality position. For the next 10 minutes Ulster had to be sharp in defence as Exeter took control.
Ulster showed a weakness in the tight, and from their second penalty, Exeter nudged ahead in the 28th minute with Steenson’s second effort. Ulster appeared to be running around in circles until in the 30th minute their marquee signing, Piutau, did what he was paid to do. He had been sowing the deeds of doubt in the Exeter fast-up defence with his dancing feet and power before he jigged through the Exeter defence on half-way before flanker Reidy picked up at a ruck to go over. Jackson converted and the home crowd finally found their voice.
Ulster began to up the tempo and put more pace into the game, but it was Piutau, with nobody at home, who had to look sharp in the defence as he was in attack when he chased back at pace, and under pressure, to sweep up a long kick deep into his own half, which could have spelt danger for the home side. Exeter finished the half the stronger with the knowledge that they just had a slight edge over Ulster in the physicality stakes.
But just like the first half, it was Ulster who hit the straps first, and although they spoiled some good approach work with silly little errors, it was Jackson with his second penalty who pushed Ulster into a 13-6 lead. But Ulster, like last week’s dreadful work in the defeat in Bordeaux, again failed to collect a straight-forward restart, and although they were lucky to not concede a try, the position allowed Steenson to rattle over his third penalty.
The fire seemed to be extinguished from Ulster’s game when Stuart Olding made a blistering break on the hour that scythed open the Exeter defence, but unfortunately he took the wrong option in choosing to veer and kick left instead of drawing the last man and pass right to give his midfield partner Luke Marshall to what looked like a run to the line.
The game became extremely scrappy with Ulster just not getting any go-forward ball to allowed their talented back-line freedom to run. Then came that extraordinary final four minutes. In the end Ulster held out for victory, but they really needed a bonus point to keep their hopes alive of getting out of Pool 5. It’s still all to play for, but it’s going to be tough, very tough.
Scorers — Ulster: Reidy try, Jackson 3 pen, dg, con. Exter: Steenson 5 pens, dg
Ulster: J Payne, A Trimble (capt) (Gilroy 68), L Marshall, S Olding (Bowe, 78), C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best, R Ah You (Kane, 40-45, 50); P Browne (O’Connor, 12, 21), F van der Merwe; I Henderson (Ross, 40), S Reidy, R Wilson (Herring, 66).
Exeter: L Turner; O Woodburn, I Whitten (Devoto, 62), H Slade, J Short; G Steenson, capt D Lewis (Maunder, 62); M Low (Rimmer, 52), J Yeandle, H Williams; M Lees (Hill, 60), G Parling; K Horstmann, J Salvi (Dennis, 52), T Waldrom
Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (FFR)