Ulster's European hopes are ended after defeat at Exeter
This weekend's visit of the Bordeaux-Begles to the Kingspan Stadium will be the most dormant of dead rubbers, after Ulster were left all but out of the Champions Cup with only five games played.
Exeter 31 Ulster 19
The province did manage three tries in last night's loss at Exeter, but the Aviva Premiership outfit crossed the whitewash on five occasions and used a powerful second-half display to maintain their own slim chances of a quarter-final place.
Ulster finished the game with just 14 men thanks to Paddy Jackson's late yellow card, and one final flurry came up short to ensure the province would not take a single point from their three away games in this campaign.
Sean Reidy's try and a pair of scores from the spectacular Charles Piutau had briefly sparked hopes of an unlikely charge to the last eight, especially when other results went their way over the weekend, but Les Kiss' men must now face up to a third consecutive season without European rugby in the spring.
In a game when nothing less than a win would end their hopes of a place in the knockout rounds, Ulster began seemingly intent on carrying the campaign at least into the final round of the pool games.
After pressuring Exeter into an early turnover, a set-move created a gaping hole for Stuart McCloskey to canter through, with the bulldozing centre offloading for Sean Reidy to score.
In an encouraging opening, the visitors seemed set to create another score minutes later, but, after some 22 phases, Kieran Treadwell was pinged for holding on just metres from the line.
England wing Jack Nowell was prominent, and with a quarter gone Exeter's backline made the most of a penalty advantage and a misread from Andrew Trimble to put Michele Campagnaro into space.
The despairing tackle of Rory Best was not enough to stop the Italian international from levelling matters.
Former Royal School Armagh pupil Gareth Steenson could not, however, give his side the lead with the conversion.
While Ulster caught a break from the TMO moments earlier, Romain Poite eventually awarded Rob Baxter's men a second score when the prolific Tom Waldrom picked up from the base of an unsteady scrum and forced his way over.
Ross Kane, making his first European start, was lost to injury just after the half-hour mark, making way for Champions Cup debutant Johnny Simpson, but Ulster held firm at the next scrum to score again.
From just inside the Exeter half, Paddy Jackson's well-timed pass gave Charles Piutau the opportunity to attack and the wing showed all his quality to leave Nowell grasping at thin air before crossing the line.
Jackson converted to leave the scores level at half-time.
After the turn, Exeter were the team applying the pressure, sensing scrum superiority.
Another incisive attack brought a set-piece on the five metre line, but a Louis Ludik interception brought respite. Play was called back for a scrum penalty on Callum Black and this time the hosts went for touch.
Ulster repelled the maul, but could not gain a foothold before they were underneath their own posts again, this time when Exeter could make ground with the scrum and Waldrom barged over for his second.
Campagnaro soon followed suit, bagging a brace of his own, after a fantastic combination from Phil Dollman and Nowell scythed through the Ulster midfield.
Steenson couldn't convert, but Ulster's campaign was still teetering on the brink.
It was with such a precarious situation in mind that captain Trimble opted to go for the corner from a kickable penalty on the hour and fortune did indeed favour the brave.
The maul was rumbling towards the line when Exeter infringed, the penalty advantage allowing Jackson to put a kick into the corner, where Piutau was lurking to become the third player of the game to bag a brace of tries.
The All Black made sure to give Jackson every chance of the much-needed conversion, but the kick would be the last points Ulster would score.
Piutau and Jackson almost created another opening for Dave Shanahan, but a late penalty try - which just as in Clermont brought a yellow card for Paddy Jackson - meant Ulster were chasing nothing more than losing bonus points.
And while they launched one more desperate attack, even that consolation was not forthcoming.
EXETER: P Dollman; J Nowell, M Campagnaro, I Whitten, O Woodburn; G Steenson, D Lewis (S Townsend 67 ); B Moon (M Low 59), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 59), G Holmes (H Williams 59); M Lees, J Hill; T Johnson (K Horstmann 55), D Armand, T Waldrom.
ULSTER: L Ludik; C Piutau, L Marshall (J Stockdale 60 ), S McCloskey, A Trimble (B Herron 72); P Jackson, D Shanahan (P Marshall 78) ; C Black (A Warwick 45), R Best (J Andrew 78), R Kane (J Simpson 33): K Treadwell (F van der Merwe 63), P Browne (C Ross 55); I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
Ref: R Poite (FRA)
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