Ian Whitten hoping to make it a winning Aviva stadium debut

Former Ulster duo Whitten and Gareth Steenson part of Exeter squad to face Leinster

Exeter’s Ian Whitten is tackled by Leinster’s Cian Healy during the European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool Three match at Sandy Park, Exeter. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

Exeter’s Ian Whitten is tackled by Leinster’s Cian Healy during the European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool Three match at Sandy Park, Exeter. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

 

For the former Ulster duo of Ian Whitten and Gareth Steenson, Saturday afternoon’s meeting with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 3.15pm) will be a particularly special and inspiring occasion.

Even in his four seasons with Ulster, the 30-year-old Whitten never played at the Aviva Stadium, and while he played in both meetings against Leinster in this competition five seasons ago, the Dublin game was at the RDS.

“Oh, it’ll be special for me. I played a club game at the old Lansdowne Road for Queen’s University, so I did. I never played in the Aviva so – if he (Rob Baxter) picks me – it’d be special for me. I’m sure it’d be special for Steeno too.

“We played Wanderers, I think we got absolutely stuffed,” he recalls cheerily. “I remember the wee clubhouses at the end,” he adds of the quaint old Wanderers pavilion in the corner of the old ground. He’s been around that long.

“Yea, I’ve been round a long time. Feels that way now as well, so it does. It was All-Ireland League division 3 or something like that. Good standard!”

None of his family were in attendance for last Sunday’s meeting, admitted Whitten, “because they’re all going next week” he revealed with a smile. “They come over all the time. Last year was great, the semi-final and final of a premiership, so there was a few over for that.”

Although he was called up to the Ireland squad for the summer tour of USA and Canada, where he won two senior caps, and continued to play regularly for Ulster, Whitten cited the need for a fresh challenge and to test himself in a new environment when joining Exeter in 2012.

His hard running, big tackling and work-rate have made him a popular figure at Exter, and last season’s semi-final win over Saracens marked his 100th league game for the club. Now in his sixth season with Exeter, he has played over 150 games in total for the Chiefs, who are rumoured to be bringing up to 10,000 supporters to the Aviva.

“We get great support. Fans make it for us, there’s a great energy around the place on matchdays and you really feed off that. It helped us a lot (against Leinster). They roared us on, it’s just a shame we weren’t accurate enough really. Let a couple of things slip. I’m sure there’ll be plenty over there next week and it’ll be a great atmosphere for us.”

This will be an altogether different sense of occasion, and Whitten and Steenson will not be the only Exeter players with plenty of motivation. Last season’s Premiership champions have targeted Europe this season, and they will see themselves as fighting for their lives.

“I’m sure we’ll pick ourselves up. We need to go away and get points to keep ourselves in it,” said Whitten. “Realistically, we’ve lost last Sunday, but we’re not out of it. We’ve three games left and two wins in the bank already. We’ve to push and try to get that four win mark. Next week is another opportunity to try and do that.”

Leinster, he acknowledged, have “a lot of seasoned pros – boys who’s used to playing the big games. You’ve got to take your chances and opportunities to put pressure on them. It felt like we let them off the hook a bit.

“I hope we can take a bit of confidence from the (first) game. We had them under pressure, scored a good try in the second half to level things up. Probably in the first half we didn’t take our opportunities and put the heat on them. We lost the kick battle at times, we need to improve that and we need to look tactically at what we’re doing there. But there’s good signs for us. Like, it was a close game, although we didn’t get a losing bonus point it was a close game. It felt to me like it was close anyway.”

As a further word of warning to Leinster, when the Chiefs previously lost at home prior to last Sunday’s game, by 13-7 to Bordeaux Begles almost 12 months to the day, a week later they avenged that defeat by 20-12 in Stade Chaban-Delmas.

“It’s about a team that can recover well. Rob says to us, both teams could probably play better than they did (last Sunday) and the team that improves the most will come out on top.

“Like I said, we’ve got to dust ourselves down and go and give it a real rattle. The effort was there. We can’t fault our effort. We’ve just got to be a bit smarter, look after the ball a bit better and maybe cause them a few more problems.

“Generally, when we’ve lost games we haven’t panicked. We talk sensibly about what we need to get better. There’s still good belief in ourselves. We’re top of the Premiership; we went away to Montpellier and won. There’s a bit of belief there we can take from what we’ve done this year already – the end of last year as well.

“We believe we’re a good rugby side. It’s just, can we produce it against Leinster and get a win against them?”

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