Gareth Steenson almost gets the drop on former Ulster teammates

Ulster 19 Exeter 18: Dungannon’s Gareth Steenson came within a whisker of a dream return to his home province on Saturday night.
Gareth Steenson almost gets the drop on former Ulster teammates

Unwanted by Ulster a decade ago, he made his way to Exeter, and the-32-year-old fly-half managed to steer his side into what looked like a winning lead with four tantalising minutes remaining in an often frustrating Champions Cup clash in Belfast on Saturday night.

But alas it was not to be for the Exeter skipper who had earlier landed five sweet penalties to keep Ulster at bay.

In the end it will be Ulster who have more hope of climbing out of Pool 5. But only just.

It was in that pulsating final four minutes that had everyone holding their breaths. Firstly, Steenson banged over that dropped goal in front of the posts in the 76th minute to give Exeter the lead for the first time at 18-16. But one minute later, the Ulster pack trundled downfield and Paddy Jackson replied in kind to put Ulster back into a one-point lead.

But the drama wasn’t over. With 90 seconds remaining the Exeter skipper Steenson lined-up another drop goal from a similar position from his first. He had time and space, and when he struck the ball cleanly, he initially clinched his fist in celebration only to see the ball fly wide of the right-hand upright.

Skipper Andrew Trimble looked shell-shocked at the end, but he praised his side for the character they showed.

“It was one of those finishes to a game that is entertaining and I think a lot of supporters got their money’s worth. But to be honest it was a bit too entertaining for my liking,” laughed Trimble. “We had to dig really deep.”

“The first 15 minutes, it was dry and we were going through the phases and kept the tempo of the game up. But it became fairly static which suited them and it became a proper old-school dogfight out there. Whenever it comes down to that, it becomes a case of who wants it more, who has the more character and who can be brave enough to stand up and take the game by the scruff of the neck. Whenever you have a few minutes left on the clock and you get into the red zone, you have to get a result. Paddy got himself into the pocket, and delivered.

Ulster who had most of the possession and territorial advantage, managed to score the only try of the game but butchered two other scoring chances. It was their big-name signing Charles Piutau that proved the real difference between the two sides. It was his magnificent scything run that set up flanker Sean Reidy’s touchdown in the 30th minute. However, Director of Rugby Les Kiss was just happy his side remain in the hunt for the last eight. “The nerves were certainly frayed a bit with that one,” laughed Kiss. “It was a pretty emotional day for rugby really. That ending was tight. But I think we were good for the win. We made quite a few line breaks and I think if we had of gone the right way we would have added a couple of tries. I just think we were out of sorts. But the quality of the team to stay in the hunt, and stay committed to the things we talked about, helped us over the line. The flow that we want is just not there yet.”

Scorers for Ulster:

(Reidy try, Jackson 3pen, dg, con).

Scorers for Exeter:

(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, Warwick, 79); 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).

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