Jackson’s late drop goal helps Ulster squeeze past Exeter Chiefs
Outhalf ’s dramatic intervention secures a hard-earned victory for Les Kiss’s charges
Paddy Jackson watches his late drop goal secure victory for Ulster over Exeter Chiefs at the Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho
Ulster emerged bloodied but unbowed and grateful that they managed to do just enough on foot of a fitful performance.
Exeter Chiefs will see the losing bonus point as a a meagre reward, their dogged resistance taking them to the cusp of what for large tranches of the game seemed an unlikely win.
It was too close for comfort as Ulster’s feat of escapology was accomplished with just three minutes remaining.
The explosion of sound from the stands that greeted Paddy Jackson’s 77th minute drop goal, the score that ultimately defined the outcome, was a release for pent-up frustration.
That guttural roar was replaced by a collective intake of breath less than 60 seconds later when Armagh-born, Exeter Chiefs outhalf and captain, Gareth Steenson tried to land a second drop goal of the night. He thought he nailed it, his right hand rising briefly, before dropping to his side as the ball drifted a fraction outside the right hand upright. Tiny margins.
The night had begun on a more poignant note. The crisp, stillness of a Belfast night during a minute’s silence for the late Anthony Foley, gave way to a tuneful rendition of the Fields of Athenry; a lovely, poignant tribute. By the time Munster travel to the Kingspan Stadium this week, a plaque honouring Foley will be in the visiting dressing room.
Ulster relied on a number of individuals to eke out their win, man-of-the-match Charles Piutau was outstanding and the catalyst-in-chief, making 126 metres, beating 12 defenders, several in the build-up to getting field position for Jackson’s late drop goal. Stuart Olding, Jared Payne, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy and loosehead prop Kyle McCall were others who contributed handsomely.
Ulster coach Les Kiss said for the team to progress in Europe the workload, perspiration and inspiration must be more evenly shared.
“We’re in touch still; we’re in the hunt albeit that Clermont are a massive challenge home and away [in December]. We’re going to need to be at our best and get to a point where we are playing a little bit better.
“We’ve got two or three players to lift us at moments but I need five,r six or seven guys to do the same. We’re just a little bit off at the moment.
“Charles [Piuatu] was good and he has created some momentum for us. When I was with the Irish team watching profiles of this guy, he was unbelievable. We probably missed him the last couple of weeks and again he did some really special things and we haven’t seen the best of him yet.”
The home side began brightly, fluid in their patterns, using width to get outside Exeter but when the rain arrived, they got narrower, less accurate and indiscipline undermined their ambition. They invited the Chiefs into the match and then couldn’t get rid of them.
Game management was an issue. Ruan Pienaar appeared still hampered by injury while Paddy Jackson’s performance mirrored Ulster’s on the night, a mixture of the good and the not so good.
“Last year he would have controlled behind the breakdown a little bit more and been a bit more flexible,” said Kiss. “He’s playing one side of the ball too much at the moment. He marshals a team well around the park but if he can kick a little more, just find some grass and mix it up a little bit more.”
But Kiss also acknowledged his outhalf’s character.
“To hold his nerve, stay tough in the mind, get to the point where you can step back and pop it over when it matters is a big play.”
The decision to go to the corner with penalties on four occasions yielded nothing for the home side as did 10 clean breaks with the exception of a try from flanker Sean Reidy, finishing smartly following a gorgeous Piutau stutter-step, show-and-go that saw him scamper through the defensive line and into the Chiefs’ 22.
Kiss explained: “At the moment it’s frustrating for us all not to be playing that style of rugby that we know we can play – we saw snippets of it tonight.
“When we made those breaks, twice I thought we could have done a little bit better, and the one we scored was great where Ruan [Pienaar] cleaned out, but there were moments when we just gave them easy territory which kept them in the hunt and you can’t give [Gareth] Steenson easy territory with his boot.
“That kept them in the hunt and I think we’re our own worst enemies at times. Just running the ball too many times and when we kicked the ball we kicked too short and they got the ball back and all of a sudden they were on the halfway line, rather than pumping the grass and making them turn and feel the heat . . .
Henderson’s withdrawal at half-time was due to a bang on the shoulder.
Kiss confirmed: “I just saw the doc. He said it’s a shoulder trauma but I don’t think it’s anything structural. We can’t be sure but we’ll wait for the scan.” Rodney Ah You (cut mouth), Ross Kane (cut) and Pete Browne (head injury) are other concerns.
Munster come calling this week.
“I think first and foremost it’s going to be emotional again. That night, we’ll still be paying a lot of our respects to Anthony. It’s the first interpro since it happened. A lot of us went down at one time or another this week and it hits home.
“We’ve had it ourselves with Nevin [Spence] and we know there is going to be a lot of emotion. We have to accept that and work with it and maybe do something they won’t like by winning to stay top of the league,” Kiss concluded.
Scoring sequence – 4 mins: Jackson penalty, 3-0; 7: Steenson penalty 3-3; 27: Steenson penalty, 3-6; 30: Reidy try, Jackson conversion, 10-6; 48: Jackson penalty, 13-6; 51: Steenson penalty, 13-9; 66: Steenson penalty, 13-12; 70: Jackson penalty, 16-12; 73: Steenson penalty, 16-15; 76: Steenson drop goal, 16-18. 77: Jackson drop goal, 19-18.
ULSTER: J Payne; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best, R Ah You; F van der Merwe, P Browne; I Henderson, S Reidy, R Wilson. Replacements: A O’Connor for Browne (12-19 and 21 mins); C Ross for Henderson (h-t); R Kane for Ah You (h-t and 48-51 mins); R Herring for Wilson (66 mins); C Gilroy for Trimble (67 mins); A Warwick for Ah You (77 mins); T Bowe for Marshall (77 mins).
EXETER CHIEFS: L Turner; O Woodburn, I Whitten, H Slade, J Short; G Steenson (capt), D Lewis; M Low, J Yeandle, H Williams; M Lees, G Parling; K Horstmann, J Salvi, T Waldrom. Replacements: C Rimmer for Low (49 mins); T Francis for Williams (49 min); D Dennis for Salvi (51 mins); J Hill for Lees (63 mins); J Maunder for Lewis (63 mins); O Devoto for Whitten (63 mins).
Referee: A Ruiz (France) .