Struggling Ulster desperate for Sandy Park success to avoid muddy European exit
Ahead of another uncertain summer, title hopes could be scalped by Chiefs
Ulster's Louis Ludik admits his side are "down" as they enter Exeter's formidable Sandy Park fortress tomorrow evening.
By the time they leave Devon, they could also be out.
With their league season meandering in its usual, predictably mediocre way, Ulster simply must beat the Chiefs before taming Bordeaux in Belfast next week to harbour any notions of European advancement.
The maths are appealing but their mood hardly so.
"They are playing very well at the moment and are third in the English Premiership, so we know it will be another difficult game," said South African-born Ludik.
"We've got a point to prove, but with it being a Sunday game, that will give us plenty of time to work hard and prepare for what will be another big challenge.
"For us it's a must-win game. I think we owe the supporters a lot and we have to go out there and make them proud.
"We've just got to keep working on the things that we've struggled with in the past couple of weeks and take our chances better.
"At the end of the season it will probably help but at the minute everyone is down and it feels like we've got nothing. It's a bit frustrating that we have to wait for a month now to get back to Pro12 action but that's part of professional rugby."
Big-name signings don't put pen to paper to lie idle during the spring European carve-up.
Ulster seem certain to recruit another of South Africa's endless production line of discarded young back-rowers to augment the one they already have (albeit injured).
"That's in the future, beating Exeter is the here and now!" warned Sean Reidy, another overseas player who won a first Ireland cap last summer.
Indeed. The present business could be trickier than it appears; Exeter may not recreate their great escape from the pool stages in 2016 but, third in the Premiership, last year's domestic finalists are the real deal.
Rob Baxter is a no-nonsense coach and, with Ulster vulnerable in a number of areas, he will want his side to maintain their run of form in front of their faithful.
Ulster shake up their side; their appalling record in developing scrum-halves means that, with Ruan Pienaar injured and Paul Marshall dropped, Dave Shanahan starts after only 10 league appearances from the bench. If anything sums up their lack of forward-planning, this is it.
Charles Piutau returns on the wing, where his shaky defence and uneven distribution should always house him, at the expense of Jacob Stockdale, with Ludik roaming from 15.
Up front, Pete Browne comes into the second-row, with Iain Henderson switching to the back-row and Clive Ross dropping to the bench. Ross Kane makes his first European start at tighthead.
Exeter make seven changes to the side that drew with 14-man Saracens last week as centres Michele Campagnaro and Ian Whitten, one of two former Ulster men in the side alongside out-half Gareth Steenson, form a new partnership.
Winger Olly Woodburn is back, scrum-half Dave Lewis replaces Will Chudley, while prop Ben Moon and second-rows Mitch Lees and Jonny Hill are recalled.
Ulster must maximise any chink of mentality that suggests the home side may be taking a breather until the league resumes at the end of this month.
Exeter forwards coach Rob Hunter, perhaps hoping that the milder weather may advance a more expansive game, hints at Ulster's need for a bonus potentially providing a spectacle.
"They've got to come here and win and realistically take a bonus point as well, so I can imagine it'll be a very good game," he said.
Reidy insisted: "We just want a win and then get some good results going and get through to the quarter-finals and get some belief back.
"So we're going to attack this game and play some good running rugby which we are capable of."
Ulster can plan without Craig Gilroy, Tommy Bowe and Robbie Diack for this one; whether that is a good thing or not, we shall soon find out.
Exeter Chiefs - P Dollman; J Nowell, M Campagnaro, I Whitten, O Woodburn; G Steenson (c), D Lewis; B Moon, L Cowan-Dickie, G Holmes, M Lees, J Hill, T Johnson, D Armand, T Waldrom. Reps: J Yeandle, M Low, H Williams, D Dennis, K Horstmann, S Townsend, J Simmonds, O Devoto.
Ulster - L Ludik; C Piutau, L Marshall, S McCloskey, A Trimble (c); P Jackson, D Shanahan; C Black, R Best, R Kane, K Treadwell, P Browne, I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy. Reps: J Andrew, A Warwick, J Simpson, F Van Der Merwe, C Ross, P Marshall, B Herron, J Stockdale.
Ref - R Poite (FFR).
Exeter Chiefs v Ulster,
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